The Christmas lights outlining the shuttered windows of Anthony and Michael Companga’s Italian BYOB, Ava, were warm and welcoming upon our snowy arrival at the restaurant. At 5:30 on a Tuesday, the place was entirely empty, a fact understandable due to the inclement weather outside. The ambiance foreshadowed by the lighted decorations, however, is not what will bring you back to Old City for another visit. It is the classic Italian preparation and presentation of the dishes that left us feeling full and satisfied that makes Ava worth the cab fare.
The menu, set up as a four course, prix fixe meal for Restaurant Week, included a mix of dishes both native to their usual menu and specially created for the week. For the primo piatto, we ordered an arugula salad with white beans, speck, lemon vinaigrette and shaved parmesan ($10 normally), along with a bowl of pasta fagioli soup. The salad was dressed perfectly and tasted very fresh, not to mention the delightful addition of parmesan for extra flavor. The soup, on the other hand, was bland and while the addition of salt and cracked pepper did wonders, I kept reaching across the table to snag more greens from my companion’s plate.
In Italy, the pasta always comes second to the salad and before the meat. Feeling adventurous, I ordered the pappardelle with braised rabbit ragù ($18), remembering the salty yet delectable taste of rabbit I’ve had in the past. We also ordered the caserrecchie (a scroll-shaped pasta) with a pesto of fresh basil, haricot vert, and potato ($17). The perfectly proportioned rabbit ragù dish was by far the favorite of the night — a well seasoned, creamy yet meaty sauce poured over sticky, flat pappardelle noodles reconfirmed my obsession with rabbit and restored my faith in Ava after the soup’s flavorless failure. The basil pesto dish was, like the arugula, very fresh, though the choice of the thick, stubby caserrecchie as the pasta beneath the sauce was questionable.
The third course offered several options; neither of our choices appear on the regular menu today but were prepared specially for Restaurant Week. We decided on the tilapia with lemon, butter and capers as well as a pork tenderloin topped with gorgonzola in a fig demi-glaze. The tilapia was drenched in butter and oil to the point that I couldn’t finish it, but the pork was absolutely delicious. Tender, moist and surrounded by the delightful glaze, it was nicely paired with a generous amount of mashed potatoes and haricots verts.
For dessert, we opted for the Earl Grey gelato and Mascarpone cheesecake. Mascarpone cheese by nature is sweet, so the cake was extra sugary, but enjoyable nonetheless. The gelato had fascinating flavors of honey and spices and was appropriately portioned for the end of a very filling meal.
The one thing that may have kept our experience at Ava from perfection was the atmosphere — one that was neither inviting nor appropriate for the Italian food served. Coldplay played on repeat quietly in the background and there wasn’t a candle or tablecloth in sight. While I appreciate the attempt at modernizing the heavily Frank Sinatra/checkerboard tableclothed stereotype, I still missed the cozy feel of a true Italian kitchen. Perhaps warmer, dimmer lighting, happier music and a more bustling crowd could’ve made me forget that I was still in Philadelphia, enjoying another tasty meal in Old City.
Ava 518 S. 3rd St. (215) 922-3282 Don’t Miss: Pappardelle with rabbit ragù Skip: Anything fried, particularly fish Bottom Line: Though lacking in atmosphere, Ava features fresh ingredients and tasty Italian combinations