Like many Italians, cousins Cosimo Tricarico and Antonio della Ducata love talking about food. Seated in the warm glow of their fine dining BYOB, Caffe Valentino, they take turns extolling the textures, colors, and, of course, tastes of their native Pugliese cuisine. Della Ducata likens the appearance of his hand-twisted tortellini to the intricate but familiar shape of a Chinese fortune cookie. Tricarico says they don't call Puglia the "little Tuscany," for nothng: "We're famous for our wine, our fish, our olive oil." And, he continues, fingering a menu rich in pasta, chicken, veal, and fish dishes, it's a cuisine like none other in Italy. While Puglia is a southern Italian region surrounded by brillant waters, its food is, he says, a mixture of northern and southern Italian traditions, a blend of the best offerings from land and sea.
For this duo, such enthusiasm has transformed itself into a lifelong pursuit. To paraphrase a line from the classic Cary Grant comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace, food doesn't just run in this family-- it practically gallops. Tricarico's immediate family has run pizzerias in the small town of Gallipoli for years, and della Ducata has been a presence on the Philadelphia dining scene for two decades, including a stint at the short-lived but acclaimed Stephen Starr eatery, Angelina's.
When Tricarico decided to join his cousin in Philly, it wasn't long before the two started thinking about opening their own restaurant: Paolo's Pizza, now a popular hangout for University of the Arts students. It was the beginning of a mini dynasty that has come to include Mama Mia, another pizzeria near Rittenhouse Square; the recently-remodeled Caffe Valentino in South Philly, and, the newest, DiVino, a small-plates wine bar refashioned from an earlier, more traditional dining effort, also near Rittenhouse Square. That last is in partnership with sommelier Filiberto Magnati, who joins the cousins from the highly-acclaimed Savona in Gulph Mills.
Although clearly excited by the opening of DiVino-- which offers dozens of wines-by-the-glass-- the cousins remain, in many ways, partial to Caffe Valentino, its older, more traditional sibling. "Here, we try to share the way we eat in Italy," says Tricarico. Wrapped in Carparo, a warm, porous beige stone native to their home, and outfitted with photos and tiles that take design cues from the region, the restaurant showcases the craftsmanlike hands of its makers. For a newly-created banquet room upstairs, Tricarico hand-reupholstered standard wooden dining chairs in a dusky blue velvet. Back downstairs, in the main dining room, two swinging wood doors to the open kitchen are hand-carved. "My brother, Guiseppe, did that one," indicates Tricarico, pointing to the side that reads "Caffe," and sports two detailed depictions of scaly branzino. "I -- I was not so good," he continues, laughing. "His" side reads "Valentino," but is marked only by a sketchily-drawn representation of an octopus.
The menu, too, is hand-crafted, a carefully considered tribute to the cousins' hometown. "Things like duck, polenta, carpaccio don't often appear in typical Southern Italian cooking," explains Tricarico. "But they do In Gallipoli."
Sounds wonderful, but it's the pasta that's calling to me and my husband. With nearly two dozen choices, the decision might be overwhelming. But ever since Tricarico mentioned that "Spaghetti Alla Mamma Rosanna" was named for his mother's take on the classic spaghetti-and-meatballs, I've been salivating. The meatballs are large, and hand-rolled from beef that della Ducata grinds himself-- just as Mamma Rosanna has done for years. Della Ducata also, by the way, makes much of the pasta, including the gnocchi, ravioli, orecchiette, and tortellini.
Before tucking into the pasta, though, we select a few appetizers: tonight's soup, which is a generous portion of steaming white beans in a garlic and oil broth; a plateful of buttery sauteed mushrooms; and a serving of perfect shrimp bathed in a tomato cream sauce. After pasta, we're too full to consider a meat or fish course--- which include temptations like Lecce-style, herb-stuffed branzino, and Manzo-style (from Tuscany) grilled filet mignon, topped with gorgonzola and drizzled with white truffle oil.
As our leisurely meal progresses, attended to by a gently smiling waitress and a jovial waiter who enjoys bantering with the customers ("This is not Olive Garden," he bellows at one point.), the lights dim, and the croons of Frank Sinatra segue into the tinklings of some jazzy ivories. With its wraparound picture windows and its stone balustrade, Caffe Valentino can easily pass for a starlit terrace in southern Italy. Patrons continue to arrive, and Tricarico jumps up to greet each party. "For me, this place is basically like having your friends over every night," he says. "I'm a people person-- it's nice to appreciate my guests, and for them to appreciate what we're trying to do."
In five years, Caffe Valentino has built both a loyal local following and a contingent who comes again and again from the suburbs. "A lot of them say they come to see us," laughs della Ducata, in some bemusement. But as the evening wears on, and he works his magic behind the scenes, while Tricarico charms in the front of the house, it's not hard to figure out why.