February 15, 2015

A Nana Test First: Zeppoli Earns the Perfect Score

A year ago last month, the inspiration for The Nana Test, my Italian grandmother, passed away. The Nana Test began as a simple and different way to grade Italian BYOBs not just on the quality of the meal, but on their ability to replicate the classic, Italian, family-style food experience that my Nana fostered.

Zeppoli's namesake dessert, as Zeppole = fried dough
Since her passing, The Nana Test has become much more than a gimmick on our blog. It's now an opportunity to find restaurants that can rekindle the great times we shared and the lessons she instilled in my family.

The Nana Test has seen its share of hits, but the perfect score seems to be an impossible ask. Do I need to temper my seemingly unrealistic expectations? Or can a 15 minute trip over the bridge to Collingswood, NJ, prove that a perfect score is possible?

Zeppoli, the intimate Collingswood BYOB that soared to legendary status in 2012 with a "Best New Restaurant" nomination by Bon Appetit, has been on our "must" list for years. It's only fitting that we finally visited right around the time of my Nana's anniversary.

The combination of perfectly-executed food, lively conversation with friends, free tastings and plenty of wine all led to thoughts of meals with my Nana. The night felt more like an event than just a meal. Chef Joey Baldini understands the soul of the Italian food experience.

There is no greater compliment that I can bestow on Zeppoli than to say you’d make my Nana proud.

Here's how the perfect score breaks down:

Atmosphere: The chief complaint in Craig Laban’s review of Zeppoli is the obnoxious noise level. It’s funny how when you switch your point of view the lively chatter of your fellow diners becomes part of the experience, not a hindrance. An Italian meal with my family is filled with stories shouted above others to get heard. It's mayhem, where the decibel level is directly correlated to how much you're enjoying the company of friends. Zeppoli is small, loud and perfect for representing that experience. 

Simplicity: Don’t mess with recipes that are already great. That’s the test here. Zeppoli sticks to the foundations of already perfected dishes such as fusilli pesto and spaghetti vongole (olive oil and clams). They just execute better than most. The spinach and ricotta gnocchi was especially awesome. 5 out of 5

The Sauce: The tomato sauce with the stewed rabbit, should be served in a separate bowl so I can lap it up like a ravenous dog. Carbonaras are too often served goopy, without the right consistency to lightly stick to the pasta. Zeppoli’s comes with perfectly cooked al dente bucatini and just the right amount sauce to know it’s a heart attack in bowl, yet not overdone. 5 out of 5

Coniglio Pizzaiola,stewed rabbit with rosemary potatoes
Special of the night: bucatini carbonara with guanciale

Serving size and bread: Our meal started off on the right foot with a basket of mixed breads plenty full for four people. Between that and the two extra dishes - ricotta gnocchi and whole shrimp with cannellini beans - given to our table on the house (not because we were bloggers, they didn't know), I was practically full by the second course! In addition, I was initially hesitant to order the rabbit since it’s usually served as a small portion. Not at Zeppoli. The pull apart tender portion felt like a whole rabbit. 5 out of 5

Basket of many homemade breads
Gamberetti e Fagioli, whole shrimp with garlic, parsley, lemon and chili over cannellini beans

Antipasti: Finally an antipasti that my Nana would approve. Can everyone else take note? The antipasti is a cornerstone of a great Italian food experience. Done right, it kickstarts the meal as we pick at small bites and warm up the conversation. The variety of house-cured meats, vegetables, cheeses offered at Zeppoli was a sight to behold. Sure at $22 for two people it’s not cheap, but you sometimes have to pay for perfection. 5 out of 5

Antipasto Siciliano

The secret sambuca test: When I asked for a little something extra, the waiter replied, "pitaschiocello, limoncello, cactuscello or sambuca?" One of each please! Yes, we had four different digestives. Bonus point earned! +1 bonus point

Total score: 26 out of 25. 


Bradd said...

When do mom and I get to go!
Sounds fantastic!

Steve Oliver said...

Everything looks fantastic! and the Nana Test sounds like a really nice way to judge a new restaurant.