For years, Savona – the Italian fine dining destination restaurant between Conshy and King of Prussia – has been on my restaurant wish list. The prices, however, have stood in the way of a visit. $40 for an entree? In Manhattan, maybe, but not Gulph Mills. So, when they announced a renovation that would introduce a new dining experience, BAR Savona, which would offer a more casual atmosphere, relaxed prices, and rustic, simple Italian fare, (alongside the existing fine dining) the opportunity to finally dine at this longtime Main Line fav seemed imminent (so long as you consider 18 months imminent). A recent visit was a mixed bag; the food is good, but the atmosphere is inconsistent with the restaurant’s promise of a more casual experience.
Not knowing what to expect when we got there, the tiny size of the bar area was a bit surprising. Based on what I’d read about BAR Savona, I was expecting two very different dining spaces, with a considerable area devoted to the bar. Instead, the cramped, crowded entry area included those eating at the bar, two four-tops near the bar, and those waiting for tables in the main dining room. Apparently there is additional bar seating upstairs, but we were eventually (after a 25-minute wait — with a reservation — with no open seats at the bar) seated in the formal dining room, but presented with the bar menu. This could be taken two ways — on one hand, here we were, sitting in one of the more exclusive dining rooms in the area, about to receive food and service from one of the top kitchens. However, there was one major problem: it’s stuffy. We were all set for a night of salads & pizza in a casual atmosphere, and now we were forced to sit in this overly formal, quiet dining room. Elegant? Romantic? Sure, it was both of those things, but we signed up for neither when we made the reservation.
The service, which might have been one silver lining of our unfortunate location, was actually quite mediocre, especially considering the pedigree of Savona. Do they place less attention on the tables ordering from the bar menu? Probably. But, as mentioned previously, we weren’t looking for 5-star service. Yet, whenever we needed something — whether it was to place our orders, request another drink, or similar — we had difficultly finding someone to help us. When we ordered a second bottle of wine in between our pizza and pasta courses, it didn’t arrive until after we’d ordered dessert. A good neighborhood trattoria shouldn’t make these mistakes, so the “bar menu” excuse doesn’t hold water.
Could the food make up for our atmospheric concerns? We started with two salads, “baby arugula, reggiano ‘paper’, cherry tomatoes, lemon” ($11), and “escarole, toasted walnuts, red onion, pecorino romano, walnut oil” ($11). The lemon vinaigrette of the former was quite nice – tangy and fragrant, but the salad itself left a bit to be desired. It’s true that Italian food is about simplicity and letting the ingredients stand on their own, but this was a bit too simple. A pile of arugula and a handful of cherry tomatoes on a plate, with 3 shavings of cheese (calling it “paper” doesn’t really help), just seemed pedestrian. The second salad was a bit more complex, but the dressing wasn’t quite as tasty.
The brick-oven pizzas, one of the main draws for us, were solid, if a little uneven. We tried the “salsiccia”, fennel sausage, peppers, onions and a farm egg ($14), which, despite the potentially heavy toppings, was built with restraint and thus nicely balanced yet still packed with flavor. We also tried the “marco castro”, which came with pancetta, san marzano tomatoes, arugula & red onion ($14). A large pile of arugula that was dressed with the same lemon dressing from our salad sat on top of this pie, uncooked. As nice as this dressing was on our salad, it overwhelmed the flavors of the pizza (not to mention wasn’t included in the item’s description), so we found ourselves removing it to enjoy the remaining salty pancetta, tomatoes and cheese. The crust on both pizzas was thin and charred, but it was a little too cracker-like to be considered world-class. Just a bit more chewiness, and they’d really be on to something here. Still, these should be considered top tier for our ‘burbs.
We also sampled a couple of the pasta dishes: firstly, the ricotta gnocchi with lamb ragout & Brussels sprouts ($17), which paired light, airy gnocchi with savory, melted lamb. There was more meat than expected, but it was not overly gamey and thus paired effortlessly with the simple pasta and bitter greens to create what was probably the best dish of the evening. We also tried the farrotto of the day (a risotto-style dish made with farro, an Italian grain similar to rice), made with Butternut Squash. Farro is a bit firmer than rice, creating a chewier dish, however it was still nicely prepared. In all honestly, however, I don’t remember too much about it.
For dessert we tried the special, a molten chocolate cake “for two”, which easily could have served six adults. It was tasty, yes — though nothing all that special — but after a big meal, really how many bites of oozing chocolate does one need? I was spent after about 3, and we barely made a dent in the dish.
From a value standpoint, the BAR Savona menu is reasonable — you could easily share an app and get a couple pizzas or pastas without breaking the bank. The problem with the restaurant’s setup (as we’ve detailed above), however, creeps into the value proposition as well. Basically, you’re eating pizza, but paying fine dining prices for drinks. Yes, Savona has an amazing wine list. In fact, they have the only master sommelier in the area, Melissa Monasoff. But, for most of us, pairing a $150 bottle of Brunello with a pie is pure folly, as is spending $50 on a simple, everyday red. No, this isn’t a unique problem to Savona, but the odd connection between the BAR and the formal restaurant accentuates it. (Incidentally, there is also a small but interesting beer list and quite a few creative cocktail creations.)
Maybe I’m being overly negative — Bar Savona does, after all, offer some tasty food. But that’s only part of what you pay for when you go to a restaurant, and I felt misled about the atmosphere. We were promised casual and then forced to do formal. You have to be in the mood for formal; we weren’t. So maybe it’s just a marketing thing. Or, maybe Savona should give the bar some more space to better accommodate an actual bar scene, if that’s the crowd they need to keep their business going.
Or, maybe we should try again during the summer, when the terrace is open, and we can enjoy the bar menu on the surely-more-casual porch.
100 Old Gulph Road
Gulph Mills, PA, 19428
Reservations via OpenTable
Accepts all major credit cards