Sometimes, with restaurants, I build up expectations that are almost impossible to meet. I have been burned too many times. The chances of this happening are generally slim, but increase tenfold when a spot is recommended to me over and over again. When I found myself driving an hour and a half to Collingswood’s Zeppoli, I kept asking myself, “Will this really be worth it?”
In hindsight, this was a ludicrous question. Still, as I drove through visibly-impairing rainfall on a dreary Jersey Turnpike night, I couldn’t help but wonder if this tiny BYO would truly live up to the hype. If you have dined at Zeppoli— just a stone’s throw from bustling Philadelphia— I probably don’t need to tell you that not only did the experience meet my expectations, but it shattered them. It left me asking myself: “Is Philly’s best Italian restaurant in New Jersey?”
Of course, Philly is rife with Italian fare in its own right— I don’t mean to be crass and suggest otherwise. However, the overall package at Zeppoli warrants the question. Besides, this restaurant puts forth a feat that would be considered miraculous for any city in the country.
Zeppoli in Collingswood, NJ brings one of the most intimately special dining experiences around. I implore those who appreciate great food to dine here— because ultimately, it won’t be your last.
This limited BYO opened in 2011, bringing what the team refers to as a “small, romantic and very intimate” setting. I could not describe the space better myself. Upon walking through the discreet front door, you are immediately hit with not a host stand or coat rack, but tables. There is simply no space for fluff. In front of you is a tiny room that houses all 35 seats (not including patio seating when weather permits). At the back of that room is an open kitchen— also quite small— and the entirety of the architecture leaves you wondering if this building was even constructed with the purpose of ever hosting a restaurant. Probably not, but I don’t mean this in a bad way. Zeppoli’s atmosphere exudes old-world charm.
Their focus is on simple and classic Italian cuisine with a concentration on the foods of Sicily. Chef/Owner, Joseph Baldino aims to bring comfort to guests’ plates and credits a visit to Anna Tasca Lanza’s farm in Sicily (a cooking school centered around the food and culture of Sicily) as the inspiration for Zeppoli. His stint as Chef de Cuisine at one of Philly’s greatest restaurants, Vetri, adds to Baldino’s decorated resume. It was at these two places that he conceived what would come to be known as one of the greatest Italian restaurants in an area that is anything but scarce on the cuisine.
Zeppoli feels unique from other restaurants in the area. It offers something that is inexplicable in words— a feeling that is best conveyed by experiencing it for yourself. Chances are that if the doors are open for service, Zeppoli is at capacity. Because of this, I felt lucky to secure a reservation for two on a Saturday evening.
Zeppoli’s greatness is built on the food and service, but it is sustained by the ambiance. The dim lighting, visible kitchen, unassuming wooden tables (and everything else that goes into making this place its own) work in tandem to create a dreamy dining experience. One that I would happily endure another torrential downpour for a second and third time.
Upon sitting, we are handed a menu with five appetizers, five pastas, five entrees and a handful of desserts. The server tells us of the specials for the evening, as well as the two dining options that Zeppoli offers. You have a choice between a three-course menu and a four-course menu. The former is priced at $55 and includes an appetizer, entree-sized pasta and a dessert, while the latter hoists a $75 price tag and includes an appetizer, half-portion of pasta, entree and a dessert. For both the quality and quantity, these are well-priced menus, with the four-course option seeming almost like a steal of sorts. So, we went with it.
For starters, we reveled in the Finocchi Salsiccia (fennel sausage) as well as the shrimp with beans. The sausage was loaded with intense fennel flavor and contained within a natural casing. When sausage is poorly made, it is easy to tell– the interior lacks structure and the flavor is off. Oftentimes, restaurants don’t even bother making their own for this very reason. However, at Zeppoli, it is obvious that an expert is making this sausage. The casing snaps when you bite it and the juices from the pork marry with the aromatic fennel flavor on the back of your palate. As you make your way through the dish, it evolves. By the time you get to the broccoli rabe, it has soaked up enough pork flavor to become a standout dish of its own. This starter felt like the perfect introduction to Chef Baldino’s concept— one that revolves around the idea of simplicity.
Our second starter, the shrimp with beans, was a tad more convoluted than the name might suggest, but still simple at its core like the plate beside it. Whole shrimp were sauteed with lemon, garlic and parsley before being rested atop a bed of cannellini beans. Generally speaking, I don’t order shrimp often. I am bored by the classic shrimp cocktail, or even the now over-done “sauteed garlic shrimp” which usually consists of dozens of tiny, shell-less shrimp bathed in a pungent broth.
I want heads on my shrimp. I want the shell left on. When I am done, I want to suck the heads clean— assuring that not even an ounce of shellfish essence is left behind in waste. It may sound foolish, but to me, there is a clear difference in flavor between shrimp that is cooked this way versus one that is stripped of half of its identity before ever touching the heat of a pan.
The meat of the shrimp was tender and well seasoned. The beans were delicate in texture and hearty in flavor, and the cooking liquid that surrounded the plate was a perfect match for Zeppoli’s house-made bread, which I used to wipe the plate clean with. As I picked the heads up with my bare hands and scavenged for any remaining shrimp flavor, I was anything but embarrassed. Primal as it may be, if someone wants to stare at me basking in that glory, so be it.
Then came pasta, and some tough decisions. Deciding on just two pastas was easily the hardest choice of the evening, half joking about ordering them all.
First up, Rigatoni alla Disgraziata— translating to “the poor wretch’s rigatoni” is a dish that perfectly encapsulates the essence of Sicilian fare and, ultimately, the approach to Baldino’s cooking. Tomato and eggplant are cooked together, creating what is a basic but deep-flavored sauce. The dish is finished with freshly grated ricotta salata (a salty hard cheese from Sicily) and toasted breadcrumbs (a common pasta topping in historically poorer parts of Italy).
The feeling that eggplant can leave you with after being so delicately combined with tomatoes is indescribable. The eggplant— like a sponge— soaks up any flavors that come its way. Ricotta salata brings a needed salinity to the dish, while breadcrumbs bring dueling textures of crunch and softness. The crumbs nearing the top of the plate were crisp and sharp, while the ones closer to the sauce’s heart soaked up the moisture, rehydrating themselves with the flavors of the dish’s entirety. Mezze rigatoni was assigned to take all these working parts and transform them into a composed dish. I was floored and rightfully so; I was sitting here eating a dish that basically meant “the poor bitch’s pasta” and was smiling while doing so.
Good Italian cooking is enigmatic in that way.
Then, came the Gnocculii alla’ Argentiera. Delicate ricotta and spinach dumplings that are bathed in brown butter and sage, all while donning a crown of grated caciocavallo cheese— an ancient Sicilian cheese whose first written recipe dates back to 500 B.C. The dumplings themselves were similar to the ricotta gnudi that you see popping up on menus throughout the state, albeit putting many of them to shame. Creamy ricotta cheese spills out when cut into and specks of spinach decorate the interior. The brown butter is sweet and complete with crispy, chip-like leaves of sage. And the cheese is luscious, but sharp— providing a needed contrast to the overall richness of the dish’s whole.
I watched like a hawk as the server navigated through the cramped labyrinth of the dining room with our entrees— the savory aromas riding the air as he set the plates down.
I dug into the Coniglio Pizzaiola first— a tomato-stewed rabbit with roasted potatoes and a heavy dosage of fresh oregano and rosemary. I often tell people that rabbit is my favorite protein. Whether this is true or not is neither here nor there, but what I do know is that I almost always order it when seeing it on a menu. It is something I ate often during my time at The Culinary Institute of America, as well as my time working in Manhattan. However, elsewhere, it can often be harder to find. Blasphemous, I know. The people have yet to catch on.
So, I dug into the fork-tender meat and relished in what was one of the most comforting bites I’ve taken in quite some time. Slightly crisp potatoes married with the hare-flavored tomato sauce. The herbaceousness from both the rosemary and oregano was much needed. Might I add that fresh oregano is an entirely different entity than its dried counterpart. I find people are averse to oregano at times, but what they are really disliking is decade-old dried oregano that’s been sitting in the back of a dark cabinet being sprinkled on their pizza as an afterthought. It’s poignant, and somewhat gross. When oregano is skillfully added, though, it can be wonderful. As expected, it was just that.
My bowl had a rabbit leg and two pieces of saddle in it. Like the shrimp before it, I did not hesitate to pick it up by the bone and get more acquainted with my dinner— I think that is a good thing.
Surprise, we also ordered the chicken. I always do at restaurants of this caliber. Zeppoli’s version offered a roasted half chicken with fresh lemon and cippolini agrodolce— a sweet and sour condiment found throughout Italy. There are hundreds of styles, many containing some version of vinegar and sugar. In this case, the saccharine cippolini onions are roasted in the stuff. What this creates is a sweet, caramelized flavor that has a sour bite to back it up. Onions as a side— it doesn’t get better than that.
The chicken itself was understandably divine. Tender, braise-y leg meat and firm, moist breast meat were both here to play. The glass-like skin was laced with garlic and rosemary. From what I’ve gathered, Zeppoli spit-roasts their chickens slowly over the course of three hours. The evenly cooked and supple meat is a direct result of this method.
By this point, I had slowed down tremendously. Even unable to finish my entree, which left me feeling like a failure. But, it was for a good cause: Dessert.
A chocolate torte and the restaurant’s namesake, zeppolis, are what was on the menu for our final course of the evening.
The torte was made with dark chocolate and almond. The nut’s flavor was infused throughout the entirety of the cake, which was dense with a lacy top. Imagine your favorite box of brownie mix. The one that brings you back to your childhood. Now, add high-quality chocolate as well as nutty almond flavor. That was this dish. It encapsulated nostalgia for me— something I find to be especially incredible in desserts.
The zeppolis, essentially fried donut of sorts, were filled with chocolate hazelnut spread. The dough itself had a good flavor to it and a noteworthy structure on its interior. The exterior was golden brown and crisp. I could go on for a while about what made this technically great, but at the end of the day, It’s fried dough and Nutella— what more do you want?
Accompanying both desserts was complementary struffoli, which are marble-sized dough balls glazed in honey and citrus. They are finished with rainbow sprinkles. In many Italian-American households, these are a staple for the holidays. By giving guests this at the end of the meal, Zeppoli is essentially saying “You are family and you are welcome back.” Or at least that’s how I took it. As full as I was, I ate the struffoli too. It would’ve been rude not to.
Zeppoli – The Hype is Real
For well over a year now, people have been nagging me about making the trip to this 35-seat BYO just across the river from Philly. Well, I finally did and I can say with utmost certainty that I will be making the trip again. Whether you are in Northern New Jersey or deep in the heart of Philadelphia, Zeppoli is worth the car ride. You are guaranteed a shockingly marvelous meal, with the promise of an experience that is like no other. The dining room at Zeppoli felt like home, the servers felt like my friends, and the food was impossibly great. There is nothing more I could ask for in a dining experience than that.
Despite its size, Zeppoli is a well-oiled machine of a restaurant. Its expert staff puts on a performance that is mesmerizing and hospitable. For the two hours you will spend here, you have been transported away from Collingswood and sent spiraling into what feels like a dream sequence. As plates slide before you and away from you, nothing else matters. Whether it is head-on shrimp or a stewed rabbit, Chef Baldino and the team behind Zeppoli make magic happen with every single meal.
To me, that is a priceless experience.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.