Arugula Ristorante Italiano
275 Wilmington West Chester Pike (Route 202)
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania
Tucked away in a tiny nondescript strip mall next to a Great Clips Hair Salon, Arugula is easily passed by without notice. And the homey, retro-style interior, while certainly comfortable, isn’t about to set off any aesthetic bells and whistles either. No, the drawing card here is clearly the food. Owned and operated by the Lubrano family, the cuisine is inspired by the traditional home cooking of central and southern Italy tweaked by a number of innovative touches.
Assuaging your hunger pangs with slices of crusty Italian bread aided and abetted by herb-infused olive oil, you contemplate the menu. Antipasti, you note, round up the usual suspects… from bruschetta to calamari to grilled polenta with cherry tomato & sausage sauce to Prince Edward Island mussels in red or white. All worthy of attention. Of special note, however, is the Assagi di Aranini, a sampling of the kitchen’s homemade risotto balls. A specialty of Sicily, these are rice balls flavored with saffron, stuffed with vegetables, cheese, or meat, and then breaded and deep-fried. Uncommonly delicious and the perfect prelude to any meal.
The restaurant also does a number of interesting takes on salads. Peppery arugula, for example, is combined with diminutive orange segments & julienne of fresh fennel and tossed in a light lemon olive oil dressing. The grilled romaine hearts also have a great deal to recommend them. Accompaniments include caramelized onion, goat cheese, crispy pancetta, and tangy balsamic vinaigrette. The table favorite, however, proved to be the Spinaci e Fichi (pictured), spinach leaves companioned by dried figs, candied pecans, gorgonzola, and an assertive Dijon olive oil dressing.
As you move on to the entrées, Arugula offers excellent choices of meat, fish, and fowl… But let’s not forget the pastas, which are particularly well prepared. And at the top of my list is the Capellini all’Arugula, angel hair pasta in a cherry tomato arugula sauce with shavings of Pecorino Romano cheese. This is a relatively simple presentation as pasta dishes go… but all the more sublime because of its apparent simplicity. For starters, the angel hair, properly al dente, sports just the right texture. Then there’s that marvelous sauce that dances across the palate with beguiling light-as-a-feather flavors that keep you coming back for more. The crowning touch…? The sensuously salty tang of Pecorino Romano.
Coming in a close second in the pasta sweepstakes is the linguini with clams – which actually turned out to be capellini – in white wine broth. Once again, the pasta is just the right texture; and the clams are at the very peak of good health. But with dishes of the nature, the determining factor usually turns out to the broth. Clam (or mussel) broth is occasionally rife with what could only be described as a rather “funky” flavor and/or aroma. This is due to a variety of possible circumstances… none of them very pleasant. You needn’t worry, however, as Arugula’s rendition passes muster on all counts.
Continuing in a piscatorial vein, when the monkfish medallions make a guest appearance as a nightly special, be sure to take advantage of your good fortune. Known for its compact white flesh that is often compared to lobster meat, monkfish exhibits a mild, pleasant flavor and unique texture. The lean flesh tends to dry out if overcooked; but the kitchen prepares it to moist & meaty perfection and serves it up in a lovely white wine lemon sauce companioned by equally well prepared fingerling potatoes and broccoli florets. Not to be missed.
If there is an acid test for Italian restaurants, it is generally veal – and Arugula passes with flying colors. There are several options here: Alla Parmigiana, breaded and topped with tomato sauce & mozzarella; Piccata, sautéed in a lemon white wine caper sauce; Marsala, sautéed in a mushroom marsala sauce; Alla Chesapeake, saffron cream sauce with jumbo lump crabmeat, peas & mushrooms; Involtini al Cognac, rolled with arugula, pancetta, and Fontina cheese in a Cognac mustard sauce; Ciociara, sautéed in a light cherry tomato sauce topped with ground sausage & smoked mozzarella; and Amalfitana, sautéed in a light cherry tomato sauce and topped with arugula, jumbo lump crabmeat and mozzarella. Quite a lineup. Chicken breast may also be prepared in the same manner.
All the veal dishes are highly recommended. Recently sampled, however, was a particularly noteworthy variation on the theme. The veal medallions were topped with sliced eggplant, zucchini, tiara of mozzarella, and presented in an exceptional white wine sauce. The veal itself was perfectly tender with just the right amount of “bite”; the veggies that topped the medallions were just the proper texture; and the light sauce caressed rather than smothered the objects of its affection. An absolute winner in every respect.
When it comes to dessert, both the cannoli and tiramisu are made on the premises. The restaurant also serves up some excellent representatives from bindi fantasia nel dessert, a company that originated in Italy and is now also based in the United States. My nod, however, goes to the exquisite lemon cream cake from a local bakery (pictured). The texture is as smooth as silk; and the flavor is just tart enough to refresh rather than overwhelm the palate.
Arugula isn’t perfect – I mean, what restaurant is? – but it is a reasonably priced, friendly, unpretentious neighborhood eatery that hits the mark with soul-satisfying regularity. And the fact that you may tote along a vintage(s) of your own choosing also helps alleviate any undue strain on your wallet.