Branzino Italian Ristorante — the first impression is really in the name. At least for me, Branzino has a certain flair to it, fancy but not unwelcoming. Mind you, this is disregarding the fact that “branzino” is actually a type of fish. Believe me, upon entering this place it becomes clear that Branzino (the restaurant) is the furthest thing from a stinky fish.
Indeed, the decor is the first phase of fanciness that visitors will encounter during their dining experience there. For one, its location in the heart of Rittenhouse Square (261 S. 17th St.) is the first hint that the college kid in me is far from her territory. However, the overly lavish (poser) part of me felt right at home with the elegant draperies, rich golden accents and exquisite crystal chandelier overlooking the tables. This is only one of two dining rooms; there is a second one tucked away in the back, though it is typically reserved for larger parties.
While the design of the room was stunning, the size and layout were not as enjoyable. I sat at a table along the inner wall, which was close to the front window (an appreciated view) but even closer to the nearest table — I nearly sat in another woman’s lap trying to reach my seat.
However, once we were all situated with menus in hand, the lack of space became trivial. For one, food came before the menus, which is always an adequate distraction; and in this case, it was food not only worth waiting for but also worth violating a stranger for. As it goes in a self-respecting Italian place, we were first served warm bread with olive oil. I must say, too, that Branzino stepped up on its bread and oil fare, particularly with the oil; it was deliciously rich in flavor and texture but nicely balanced with a splash of balsamic vinaigrette and finished with a handful of olives. Needless to say, I asked for another basket of bread. But in my defense, the second helping was needed to sop up the leftover sauces from the appetizers, which simply could not go to waste.
Speaking of which, the appetizers (for the most part) were equally satisfying. I interject “for the most part” based on personal preference. To elaborate, I ordered the grilled calamari, which was tremendous, but the mussels were not. Again, I do not want to dissuade anyone from ordering the mussels, especially because the sauce was actually very tasty. I’m just not a fan of the slimy, goopy monsters in the first place . The meat was beautifully tender and didn’t taste too fishy, the best part being the creamy sauce accompanying it, which was loaded with fresh tomatoes and herbs. As I said before, not a drop of sauce was left behind from either dish.
In fact, the same can be said of the entrees; however, this is partly true because of the portion sizes. I typically eat more than my fair share of a meal — I don’t believe in leftovers, so I do what I like to call “clean-plating” (enough said) — so I realize that my concept of a portion size is about twice as large as the average healthy eater. Nevertheless, my three other dining partners agreed that there was not enough food. If anything, this could be taken as complimentary to Branzino for producing quality dishes that have customers wanting more. To be sure, I wanted more. I ordered the lumache pasta — if you’ve never heard of it (me neither), it’s a large snail shell-shaped pasta with lamb sausage and basil in a light, buttery sauce. In a word, it was delizioso.
Two of the other diners got the namesake Branzino Marinato. This is a whole grilled branzino fish that, to our pleasant surprise, is fileted tableside and topped with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, capers, white wine, lemon and fresh herbs, complemented with simple asparagus. While this sounds amazing, the dish underwhelmed me; the sauce seemed to mask any of the fish’s natural flavors. To finish the main courses on a good note, the final member of our group enjoyed pappardelle pasta covered in a hearty rabbit ragu with a side of rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes that were unexpectedly flavorful. Then, of course, we couldn’t help but indulge in some dessert, though we exercised self-restraint and split the bread pudding among all of us. It was tasty but not much more than that; there was nothing too extraordinary about it, just a nice belly-warming end to our meal.
The final verdict: Branzino is charming in appearance and staffed by pleasant servers who deliver upscale Italian food. Be that as it may, there was nothing outstanding about the restaurant, which was aggravated by the steep prices. All in all, I would suggest visiting this restaurant with your parents instead of using your own precious money.