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Aperto BYOB: Hearty Fare Any Time of the Year

This week, food writer Clara Park reviews a new Narberth spot.

Aperto means "open, outdoor, or outside" in Italian and we were able to snag a table aperto (without a reservation) at Aperto BYOB for dinner one night. Many people have been dying to find out what the new incarnation of the old Gemelli space would bring and I was no different. To sum up the cuisine here I would say contemporary American (the website calls it 'modern cuisine') which is just a fancy way of saying the chef creates whatever he wants. If I had to pigeonhole the cuisine, I would say it's mostly rustic Italian.

Armed with my favorite Lambrusco (I dare anyone to come up with a better warm-weather wine) from my favorite wine shop, Moore Brothers, I brought a friend out to dinner with me. As mentioned above, we did not have a reservation but were seated immediately outside. It was on the sweltering side but we didn't mind. Our server checked what kind of wine we were drinking and brought back champagne flutes for our effervescent libation (talk about great service!) before expertly opening our bottle. The bread service was good and we laughed at the 'A' for Aperto poured into our dipping oil with balsamic vinegar.

We began with the salmon tartare with cucumber and tzatziki sauce and farm salad. The salad arrived with spinach, frisee, baby lettuces, cubed red beets, crisp pieces of pancetta, julienned carrots and a goat cheese mixture spread in a thin layer on the plate. The salad was very good and well balanced. It was texturally interesting and the interplay of rich and refreshing components worked quite nicely. My only complaint was the brown end bits of the white frisee stems;nobody wants to eat them, or the tasteless stems, for that matter.

The salmon tartare was an ideal appetizer for such a warm and sultry night. The delicate cubes of fish dipped in the creamy yogurt sauce with the cool cucumber was a fantastic way to start out meal. Thick yogurt provides both acid and a creaminess that pairs well with salmon.  This dish had it all—so much so that I wonder why I have never seen this dish anywhere else. It makes so much sense to pair salmon tartare with tzatziki. I have had numerous dishes with salmon and dill or salmon and cucumber or salmon and a creamy sauce. This dish ties all of them together.

For our entrees we both chose hearty meat dishes. I had the veal cheeks with homemade gnocchi and mushrooms and she had the braised short ribs over polenta with pesto. Veal cheeks are commonly used in Italian cooking though do not often appear on menus. They are a favorite of chef Mario Batali or Rocco Dispirito; I can't remember which one loved veal cheeks and which one loved veal shank.

This cheeky incarnation was out of this world. There were four veal-cheek medallions that were among the most tender pieces of meat I have ever tried in my life. The gnocchi were light and wonderful and the mushrooms provided a nice earthiness to the dish. The mass-produced, dense and gut-bomb gnocchi that many people are used to are not even in the same realm as these delicate homemade pieces. The sauce (tasted like Bordelaise) was rich and satisfying and I was literally scraping my plate clean. My friend actually remarked that she had never seen me do that.

The braised short ribs were also well-seasoned and quite tender. Also a hearty dish, this entree received a light note from the fresh and herbaceous pesto. I could taste the savory parmesan notes in the bright green sauce as well as the grassy notes from the herbs. The polenta was rich and creamy and an ideal starch pairing for the short ribs. Both entrees were excellent but better suited for colder weather. Granted, we could have both ordered something else but we could not resist the allure of those dishes.

I can't comment too much on the decor because I was outside but the brief glimpse I got of the interior was warm and welcoming. The lighting is dim in the dining area but the semi-open kitchen is brightly lit and you get to see where the magic happens. There is some artwork on the walls and the dining area opens up as an 'L' around the kitchen. The servers wear all black and there is a constant din as everyone chats eagerly throughout their meal.

The service is friendly and relaxed. You feel as though you are interacting with friends, which I particularly enjoy (but others might not). I already mentioned being seated immediately without a reservation, the switching of the wine glasses and the flourishes in the dipping oil. In addition, our server was knowledgeable about the menu and answered all our questions quickly and efficiently. Our water was refilled constantly, which was a blessing, given the heat. The only thing that bothered me was that after we received our check our server went AWOL. I don't know how busy he was in the dining room (because I had no way of observing) and this could have been the reason for his disappearing act. After about ten minutes of waiting, I finally got up, went inside and paid our bill and got change. Aperto BYOB is cash and check only for the moment which isn't such a big deal but the closest ATM is on Montgomery Avenue—my advice is to come prepared. It's well worth the effort to grab some cash or your checkbook before you arrive to have such a wonderful meal.

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