da Filippo

This Somerville spot is where the chefs from other Italian restaurants dine.

By: Pat Tanner

da Filippo

132 E. Main St.


(908) 218-0110
Food: Mostly excellent

Service: Well-meaning but confused

Cuisine: Authentic Italian

Ambiance: Refined countryside Italian

Prices: Moderate

Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri. noon-2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 5-9 p.m.

Essentials: Major credit cards accepted; b.y.o.; no smoking; wheelchair accessible; reservations recommended Fri.-Sat.


   FROM the outside, da Filippo (also called Filippo’s) looks like a run-of-the-mill pizza joint, a narrow storefront with a red awning located a distance apart from Somerville’s central dining scene. The moment you step inside this 14-year-old b.y.o., though, that misapprehension vanishes. With nary a pizza in sight, Filippo Russo serves up ravishing, authentic Italian fare in a setting that evokes refined Italian countryside.
   Stuccoed walls in two small dining rooms are painted white, although the larger room features a brick wall lined with large photos of Sicily, Filippo’s birthplace, that make you want to sign up for the next excursion. A corner fireplace sports on its mantle a row of antique clocks, at least two of which sweetly chime the hour. The room’s focal point is a baby grand piano.
   Each diner is welcomed warmly by Berti Russo, Filippo’s Swiss-born wife, who shakes your hand and introduces herself by name if you are a newcomer. If you are a regular — and their numbers are substantial, if the Friday night of our visit is any indication — you’ll get kisses on the cheek and an animated chat. This genuinely gregarious hostess also checks in with each table throughout the meal. If you show an interest in the food or surroundings, she will even share family vacation photos and bring out the prized pearl, still in its shell, that one lucky diner found in an oyster while dining here.
   In the kitchen, Filippo does not limit his repertoire to Sicily, although that island’s best is well represented by dishes like the starter of pan-fried fresh sardines ($8) that bowled me over with its delicate lightness (two qualities not usually associated with sardines). Specials that night reflected a range, not just up and down the Italian boot, but spanning traditional and nouveau. Tripe in tomato sauce represented the old guard (and the peasantry), while dishes with sea bass and breaded mahi-mahi gave a nod to the newer and more urbane.
   Dinner starts off with a saucer of olive oil studded with nubs of dark, sweet roasted garlic, into which you dip excellent ciabbata. That the bread changes to an equally well-made dense and chewy Italian for the main course shows the level of seriousness here.


Staff photo by Frank Wojciechowski
Filippo’s serves up authentic fare in a setting that evokes the refined Italian countryside. A fireplace sports on its mantle a row of antique clocks, at least two of which sweetly chime the hour.

   Among the appetizers with which to enjoy the bread is a traditional antipasto of prosciutto di Parma, soppressata, fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers ($8), all top notch. Cold Sicilian caponata ($6), the traditional eggplant stew with capers and olives, has deep, smoky flavor to spare, and exceeded by far any version in my memory. Four blue-point oysters dressed with anchovies, hot pepper and garlic ($8) wowed even those of us who don’t like our oysters tampered with.
   Trying to eat in authentic Italian style, we ordered small portions of pasta (primi) to follow our appetizers and precede our main courses. There are five choices on the menu, each at $10, and the two we tried were merely spectacular. Perfectly cooked risotto (made with valona, an unusual variety of rice) contains chunks of assertive pork sausage and just enough saffron to flavor but not overpower the dish.
   My companions and I ordered the gnocchi in plum tomato sauce on a dare, since we all agreed gnocchi can be innocuously bland at best and gummy and heavy at worst. We were property chastened by Filippo’s, made of ricotta and made fresh everyday. The size of pretzel nuggets, they are addictive, aided in no small part by a tomato sauce par excellence that boasts fresh basil and Parmigiano. All the fresh pasta is made in-house, by hand, and all the primi can be had as a main course for $16, which has to be one of the best bargains in the state.
   Like his wife, Filippo also checks in with each table, but despite this attention lavished by the owners, the actual wait staff seemed a bit dazed during the course of our meal. Although all four of us had ordered appetizers, what arrived simultaneously at our table were three appetizers and the risotto. The fourth appetizer, oysters, were carried rather shamefacedly to our table halfway through. Then, having finished off the appetizers, we waited in vain for them to be cleared away. Apparently the young crew of servers were waiting for us to finish the risotto, while we unwittingly held off for the arrival of the gnocchi. A language barrier didn’t help matters.


Staff photo by Frank Wojciechowski
From the outside, da Filippo looks like a run-of-the-mill pizza joint, a narrow storefront with a red awning.

   With the first two courses reaching such heights, we feared the main dishes would disappoint, and they did falter just a bit. Three of the four of us were irresistibly drawn to the seafood selections, which I later learned are Filippo’s special pride. He comes from a family of fisherman, and personally treks each Thursday to the seafood market in Newark’s Ironbound section, where he searches out the freshest sardines, smallest baby octopi, and the best snappers and cuttlefish from the Mediterranean. He eschews farm-raised fish and seafood.
   Best among our piscine choices was fillet of cod ($18), whose subtle, nutty flesh was accentuated by a nuanced sauce of pine nuts, raisins, saffron and fresh dill. Like all the main dishes, this was accompanied by small roasted potatoes and sautéed broccoli rabe, the latter of which proved part toothsome, part stringy. But a thick Sicilian-style sauce of tomatoes, black olives, capers and garlic overwhelmed delicate skate wings ($18). Colossal shrimp ($18) with saffron sauce and bottarga (dried mullet roe) proved too salty to my taste, even though I ordinarily swoon over bottarga.
   Our one determined meat-eater raved over a dish of veal scallopine in a Marsala-like sauce studded with mushrooms and Gorgonzola, the salty blue cheese giving it a nice tang.
   Desserts are no big deal at Filippo’s. Only the cannoli are made in-house, but the filling contains the dreaded bits of dried fruit and is slightly chalky as well. Diners can opt for any of several sweets from the venerable Bindi company of Milan, and we opted for a perfectly fine hot espresso soufflé and a cold chocolate mousse. All desserts cost $7.
   Filippo’s has one other noteworthy attraction, beyond the glorious food and the palpable family warmth: the entertainment. On Friday nights an older gent named Rocco holds forth on the baby grand. He led off our evening with that popular "Italian" standard: the theme from The Godfather. Even better, whenever Filippo gets a break from the kitchen, he sits himself down at the piano, playing very competent renditions of everything from "O Sole Mio" to "Imagine," often singing along in a pleasant voice that has a gentle quality to it. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard his rendition of "Whiter Shade of Pale" — sung in English and Italian. On our visit he was joined by a chorus of chefs from other Italian restaurants in the area, who apparently converge here weekly to eat, drink and sing once their own duties are done. (What does that say about the caliber of food here?)
   But it was one of my dinner companions who gave Filippo’s the ultimate compliment when she pleaded with me not to write this review, wanting to keep this gem under wraps.
Pat Tanner’s reviews can be heard on Dining Today, Sat. 9-10 a.m. on MoneyTalk 1350 AM and 1040 AM.
For directions to da Filippo, click here.