In the heart of South Philadelphia’s Bella Vista sits
With the coming of World War II, Italian Immigration was curtailed for fear of foreign spies. This did not take Corona di Ferro out of the limelight, however. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the mob and the FBI both used the restaurant as a hangout where they could watch each others’ activities. These were different times, though, and the two sides treated each other like gentlemen. Among the famous (or infamous) names to have lorded over
When Michael and Connie LaRussa bought Corona di Ferro in 1996, they were faced with quite a dilemma. The restaurant was in bad shape, so they gave themselves one year to revive the traditions associated with the eatery’s history. They succeeded in spades. They brought back the wonderful
But the couple did not approach the restaurant business blind. Michael, from
Michael and Connie have collaborated to design the restaurant’s menu. Most of the recipes are traditional recipes from Michael’s family, so you are sure to be eating authentic Sicilian/Italian fare when you dine at Dante & Luigi’s Corona di Ferro. Connie assured me that “Everything is homemade--everything. We even make our own gravy (tomato sauce.) It cooks for seven to eight hours.”
Where Connie runs the restaurant, Michael runs the kitchen. “We have four chefs. Michael teaches them to make the recipes, and they can be as creative and wonderful as they want for the specials. We have a head chef, a sauté chef, pasta chef, and an appetizer chef,” Connie informs me. Although this may sound a bit odd at first, it guarantees a consistent menu and emphasizes the restaurant over the chefs. If you enjoy the Rigatoni Carbonara today and would like to have that same magnificent flavor again next week, this method lets you know that you will enjoy the same flavors. The specials are offered so that you can venture away from the menu on occasion. But then, the menu is so very large, it seems unfathomable that you can ever tire of the selections offered.
The Corona di Ferro house specialties include their gravy (tomato sauce,) osso buco (a traditional Italian favorite,) ricotta gnocchi, mussels, and lasagna. Indeed, the restaurant is so well known for its gravy and marinara that you are able to purchase jars of these two magnificent creations to take home with you. (Guilty as charged!)
As you can well imagine, this traditional Italian restaurant has a fine selection of wines from which to choose. The wine list consists mostly of Italian wines, with a small selection of
The desserts, as everything else, are made in house, and are sure to drive your taste buds wild. Do try to save room for these delicacies. If you can’t, take a doggy bag with you. These sweets are just too fabulous to say no to.
My girlfriend and I arrive at Corona di Ferro 15 minutes before our reservation time so that we may take a look at the restaurant. Inside the entrance and to the right, you will find a dining room occupied by the restaurant's full-service bar. The bar is a marvelous piece of work. The presentation is definitely designed to take you back to the mid-twentieth century during the restaurant's heyday. The dining room is large and roomy, with high ceilings and black and white photographs adorning the walls, many having been taken at the restaurant in the 1940's and 1950's. Other color photos are of the owners' family. The windows provide plenty of natural light to increase the apparent size of the room.
Across the hallway, you will find a second dining room. Here, the feeling is more formal. We see casual diners, but they seem out of place with the waiters in white shirts and ties. Again, the large windows brighten the room and increase the apparent size of the room. The restaurant is quite busy, but the noise level is subdued. As we walk back to the hallway, we notice a short stairway to our left. Up the stairs and to our right, we find a large banquet room that is ornately furnished. We are only able to glance inside briefly as there is a large party inside. We return to the front foyer so that we may be seated.
We are led to a table in the second dining room by a hostess (who turns out to be the owner, Connie LaRussa.) She hands us our menus and a wine list. The menus are quite voluminous, so I expect to be faced with some difficulty in choosing my meal tonight. A young man approaches the table and takes our water order. While he hurries off to get the water, our waiter comes to the table with a basket of bread. He proceeds to tell us about tonight's specials. Each one sounds tastier than the last.
After some discussion, my girlfriend and I decide to share an order of the Stuffed Whole Calamari as our appetizer. I choose to follow this with an order of Broccoli Rabe sautéed in olive oil and garlic. For my entree, I select the Seafood Cioppino. We place our orders with the waiter and anxiously await the calamari. The bread that has been served to us is fresh and hot. There is olive oil and balsamic vinegar in which to dip the bread, making for a terrific taste treat.
I get the waiter's attention and ask him to serve me a wine that will pair with my entree, having returned the wine list without giving it a moment's thought.
The Stuffed Calamari is served in a large bowl. A single whole calamari, stuffed with crabmeat, rests in the center of the bowl, surrounded by a pool of marinara seafood sauce. The calamari is large enough for us to share, so that does not present a problem. The zesty marinara is full of calamari rings, as well, adding to the substance of the dish. I, however, would have sacrificed some of the rings for a second crab filled calamari, having found it so delicious and much more interesting a flavor combination than the plain calamari.
With the bowl cleared from the table, my waiter serves the broccoli rabe, a personal favorite. The fragrance of the garlic is marvelous in combination with the bitter greens. The chef has sautéed the dish perfectly, retaining both the bright green and the texture of the broccoli rabe, and not burning the garlic or the olive oil. The flavors meld together marvelously. This appetizer is also available with sausage. On my next visit, I may have to try the Ziti with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage entree.
For those of you unfamiliar with the vegetable, broccoli rabe, or rapini, is a green leafy vegetable frequently eaten in
After removing my empty plate, the waiter serves me a glass of Vendange Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany the Seafood Cioppino. This is a bit surprising since a Cab is such a bold wine, usually better suited for beef or a spicy lamb. Perhaps the marinara used to make the cioppino is spicier than I expect? This wine has some very interesting notes of black and red cherries with a touch of oak. There is a hint of berry, as well. The wine fills the mouth, having good body and fruit character. It has medium tannins and a dry finish.
The Seafood Cioppino is a beautiful sight to behold. The elements have been so perfectly arranged that you just know a chef's hands have been all over the dish. (And I mean that in a good way.) There is a cornucopia of seafood--a multitude of mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, and lobster tail layered atop a pile of linguini, and served in a spicy marinara. I am not sure that I will be able to eat everything in front of me! (But I'm sure going to try.) The waiter places a bowl for my empty shells beside me before leaving the table.
The first thing I notice is that all of the shellfish are open. This is a great sign that the chef (A) steams the shellfish for an adequate amount of time before serving them; (B) pays attention to the presentation; and (C) takes pride in his work and the image that he presents for the restaurant.
I try a mussel. The marinara is spicy, but not overly so. The mussel comes out of the shell easily, and is sweet and soft, obviously having been given time to cook in the sauce. Next, I try a clam next. The clam comes out of the shell without a fight. It has not lost its clam flavor despite the fact that it has been simmering in the delicious marinara for who knows how long. My next victim is one of the giant shrimp in the bowl. The shrimp's sweet meat against the spice of the marinara is a magical combination. The shrimp is tender after having cooked for so long. I am in heaven!
I take a sip of the Vendange. It is as I feared. The wine, though good, is a bit overpowering for the cioppino. The tannins seem to have intensified with the acidity of the spicy marinara. I lose the seafood flavors completely, and find that the spiciness of the marinara has become magnified, as is to be expected when drinking a full-bodied red wine with a spicy food. I think, perhaps, something similar to a Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Tralcetto Riserva 2002, or a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Marramiero "Inferi" 2001.
I return to the cioppino and attack the calamari. This is as delicious as it was in my appetizer, only now it has other marvelous flavors to play with. The marinara here is spicier, adding to the experience as well. The rings are tender and full of the spices in the marinara. I have worked my way down to the linguini, so I decide to try that before I taste the lobster. The linguini twirls easily--a good sign. It holds the marinara well. And it tastes....fabulous! It has been cooked al dente, just the way an Italian restaurant should cook it. There is nothing I dislike more than when an Italian restaurant demonstrates an inability to properly prepare pasta. Dante & Luigi's has passed this major test. I am not a pasta expert, but I can tell that the linguini is very high quality. I will have to ask if they make their own, or if they purchase their pastas from a supplier.
Finally, I make my move for the lobster. Atop the mound of seafood on my plate rests a split lobster tail. I remove the shell and take a forkful of the oh-so-tender meat. I dip it in the marinara. As I place the morsel in my mouth, I am sure that my eyes roll back in my head and my toes curl in the wrong direction. Whatever you may think of eating lobster with melted butter, forget it. Make it with spicy marinara sauce instead; you won't be sorry. (Of course, you'll have to get to Corona di Ferro or go to their web link to buy THEIR marinara sauce to do it correctly....)
I gradually make my way through the rest of my entree, pacing myself carefully. The amount of food, the quality of food, and the presentation of the food are spectacular! I know that I will never forgive myself if I do not order dessert. Everything else has been so delicious, dessert is sure to be the crowning achievement for the "Crown of Iron."
After the waiter has cleared our plates and wine glasses, we are given the dessert menus. My girlfriend and I take some time to discuss the options. They include such wonders as Tira Misu, Italian Cream Cake with Rum, Ricotta Cheese Cake, and Ricotta Canoli with Chocolate Chips, Spumoni, Chocolate Ice Cream, LaBomba, and some imported Italian Sorbets. My head spins with the possibilities! One of my favorite Italian desserts growing up was Italian cream cake. The rum makes this dessert sound like twice as much fun. I have made my decision.
The Italian Cream Cake with Rum is described as: Classic Sponge cake layered with vanilla cream, chocolate cream, whipped cream & flavored with Galliano, Rum, and topped with whipped cream. Fortunately, we only have to walk 100 yards back to the bed & breakfast we are staying at this weekend. With that much alcohol, I doubt I could drive anywhere.
The waiter approaches the table bearing a mountain of cake and cream. The chocolate and vanilla creams are oozing from between the vanilla sponge cake layers. The whipped cream is in there too and piled on top. This is a triumph for Italian pastry chefs everywhere! I plunge my fork into the creation, and am only able to get down through a few layers. The cake is moist, the creams more like custards than pudding. Such decadence should be against the law. I have not yet found the alcohol, though. I go down another stratum. Ah, I have found the rum! Oh, what glory! The rum is not overbearing; rather, it complements the creams and the sponge cake terrifically. The Galliano is not as evident, showing up in a mere hint that augments the other flavors of the cake. This is reminiscent of the Italian cream cakes of my childhood from the bakeries in
Here is where I get to grade my dining experience. I grade on 5 factors: Atmosphere, Service, Presentation, Taste, and Value. These areas are scored on a 0 to 10 scale with 0 being the lowest and 10 being the highest.
Atmosphere: 10 walking into Dante & Luigi's Corona di Ferro is like walking back through time to the early- to mid-twentieth century. The charm and feel of the restaurant is that of the
Service: 9.5 The waiter was very professional. He represented the Corona di Ferro well, answered our questions competently, and knew the menu. However, he should have been better versed in the wine selection and how to pair wines with the menu choices. Although the Cabernet Sauvignon did not ruin my meal, it was most definitely not appropriate for the cioppino.
Presentation: 10 Everything was beautifully presented. Yes, the stuffed calamari appeared to be a single serving, but it looked gorgeous in the bowl. And you must remember, it is intended to be (A) for one person, and (B) an appetizer. The chefs obviously take great care making sure to feed the eyes as well as the mouths of their guests.
Taste: 10 A 10 does not do justice to this food. Corona di Ferro had 108 years to perfect the recipes to feed their customers. Michael and Connie LaRusssa have provided that traditional family cookbook. If you are in
Value: 10 Where else can you experience history, tradition, class, style, comfort, and enjoy a fabulous meal all at the same time? Nestled in
Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 to 9:30
Friday 11:30 to 10:30
Saturday 3:00 to 10:30
Sunday 3:00 to 9:30
Dinner reservations are always suggested.
Credit Cards (MC or Visa) are only accepted for parties of 6 or larger. Otherwise, cash or checks only.
Dante & Luigi’s Corona di Ferro |
PH 215.922.9501 | WEB www.danteandluigis.com
13 July 2007