This intimate Jenkintown BYOB eschews familiar Italian-American classics in favor of regional specialties sure to delight
by Brian Freedman

I had been in a bad mood since returning from Italy in early July. After spending a month there with my family, conducting daily explorations of the glories of the food and wine of Puglia—the so-called heel of the boot—I had been having a hard time adjusting to life back home. No more incomprehensibly affordable olive oil. No more fish mongers whose stock was determined by the boats pulling up with their daily catch. No more fresh pasta at the local market for $1.30 per pound. And, perhaps most distressing of all, no more crusty, salty, hearty bread; the overpriced and fairly anemic loaves at my local Whole Foods just don’t cut it now.

Then one night in July, I sat down to dinner at Forcella in Jenkintown and took a bite of homemade bread from the kitchen of this BYOB’s new chef, Anthony Pasceri.

Instantly, my carb-meter started to climb once again. The thick slice, its dough touched with molasses and sprinkled with salt, lovingly kissed with a mother of yeast he brought back from his time spent cooking in Umbria, possessed a crust only slightly thinner than the tire of a jeep. It was a revelation in the old-school biblical style, a crunchy-edged, supple-centered miracle: nutty, hearty and true.

In other words, it was my medicine.

Forcella opened quietly this past March in a charming, 14-seat space that’s all too easy to drive past as you zoom down Old York Road. My recommendation is to slow down and look for it. Pull into the parking lot near the Buckets and Drake taverns, dock your car for the evening, grab your best bottles of red and white—yes, both—and while away the night at one of the intimate tables set with oversized wineglasses, each with its own massive tulip.

The food here is Italian, yes, but it eschews the more familiar classics of the Italian-American tradition for the kind of regional specialties that may be less recognizable. Their charms, however, are undeniable, their soulfulness obvious immediately.

Marsala-rich shrimp arrived atop a slice of that homemade bread spread with meltingly tender burrata and crowned with artichokes and a whiff of orange. On another bruschetta, a lovely pâté of chicken liver served as a fitting base for a tangle of warm radicchio salad zipped with olive oil and lemon, accompanied by macerated sun-dried cherries and crisped, house-cured pancetta.

Even more remarkable than the success of these dishes is the fact that the evening I tasted them was the first of Chef Pasceri’s new menu. And while I wish those shrimp had been cooked for, say, 20 seconds less, that’s a vanishingly minor hiccup for a first night of service.

Sicilian ricotta dumplings known as gnocculli, with their pillowy texture and rich ricotta flavor, were triumphs of technique. And the sauce they were served in—a creamy fresh tomato number heady with crab meat—was memorable. I wish there had been more pronounced against the crushed pistachios, which provided some crunch against the dish’s otherwise softer textures, but it was excellent regardless.

Bucatini cacio e pepe, a devilishly difficult classic, could have used a touch more pasta water for my taste, but the flavors were spot on. The dance between the nuttiness of the pecorino and the perfumed bite of the pepper, all against the impeccable frame of homemade bucatini, was stellar.

Subtly orange-glazed red snapper, seared and luxuriating beneath a pleasantly crispy skin, arrived in an aromatic fumé with fava beans and peas. A 72-hour sous vide stint resulted in short ribs both compact and tender, and the shattering top layer of crisped-up fat provided a great crown for the simply seasoned flesh. Some source of brightness would have framed it all even more, especially considering the richness of the housemade demi-glace, but they were terrific on their own regardless.

My one concern here is the way in which guests are more or less encouraged into ordering the four-course, $45 tasting menu. You certainly get a generous amount of food for the money, but it’s a big commitment: a dinner for two, with tax and tip but no alcohol, for more than $100. When I asked our friendly waiter if we could also order a la carte, he said yes, but that it was more economical to get the tasting menu. However, he added, he could tell us the pricing of the dishes if we wanted to go that route; they are not listed beside each individual item. Although $45 did seem appropriate for the value we received, you don’t always want a primi followed by a pasta followed by a main followed by a dessert. Listing the prices would alleviate much of that tension.

Speaking of desserts, they too were solid. Tiramisu was a well-crafted, faithful riff on the classic, but lemon gelato, with its concentrated citrus brightness and pleasantly lactic bass notes, was a standout.

As is Forcella. Owners José and Jennifer Vargas have always been detail-oriented and dedicated restaurateurs, and I still have fond memories of their Rylei in Mayfair. (They also own Leila’s Bistro in Jenkintown.) Their vision is just as clear here, and with the introduction of Chef Pasceri, I have very high hopes indeed for their newest project. With just a few minor edits, Forcella promises to become a serious suburban destination. It’s not completely there quite yet—the issue with the tasting menu is my one reservation—but it’s tantalizingly close.

I personally plan on going back, and sooner rather than later: Any restaurant that can so completely snap me out of my post-Italy funk has my unequivocal vote of confidence. And I suspect I’ll be dreaming about that bread for the rest of the summer.

310 Old York Rd, Jenkintown

Photograph by Rob Hall