Ellie Forcella is like a craft project from the pages of Martha Stewart Living: The idea is appealing, but the finished product bears little resemblance to the glossy shot in the magazine. Ellie's is the latest venture of restaurateur Tim Mallett, who also owns the Big Sky Café, the Blue Water Grill and Remy's Kitchen & Wine Bar. The executive chef is Lisa Slay, whose cooking has been so delightful for more than 12 years at Remy's and other Mallett restaurants. Dominic Weiss is the executive sous-chef.
Ellie's calls itself an "Italian taproom." This concept may be no more familiar to you than clove-studded pomanders and organza sachets, but let us explain. First, the restaurant has tavern prices. A couple can eat three courses each for about 30 bucks, not including alcohol. Happily, the wine list is meant for drinking, not for impressing future in-laws. A 1-liter glass pitcher -- yes, pitcher -- of table wine can be had for $15, and more than 40 bottled and draft beers are available.
Mallett is positioning his taproom concept as a drop-in eatery, so reservations are not accepted after 6:30 p.m., with some exceptions for large parties. This might sound convenient or flexible, but we don't appreciate being forced to sign up on some waiting list with procrastinators who use their cell phones for every conceivable purpose except calling ahead for reservations. This irksome policy is doubtless a profitable one: Check averages rise as customers swill pitchers of booze to pass the time in the queue. One way to beat the system is to order takeout. Another alternative is to dine after, say, 8:30 p.m. And if you arrive after 10 p.m., Ellie's has a late-night menu, an option that too few restaurants offer.
In keeping with this just-swing-on-by attitude, the taproom is trying to cultivate regulars. Recurring weekly specials are listed on a mini events calendar like the one Martha publishes in every issue of her magazine. On Mondays in November, while Martha is installing warming lights in the chicken coop and sealing her stone floors, Ellie's will be turning out barbecued-salciccia sandwiches. On Tuesdays, as Martha is spreading manure on her raspberry beds, the line cooks at Ellie's will be throwing prime rib on the grill. You get the idea.
So far, it seems, the place has hardly dropped a stitch. But one look at the joint's incongruous getup suggests that concept has tangled with reality. The space is dominated by a funky painting that depicts such oddments as a wishbone, a mess of chickens, a motorcycle and a stack of saucers. The walls have been painted a smudged grayish-brown, intended to look as though the years have left behind an accretion of cigarette smoke, candle soot and grime. (This ashcan school of restaurant décor was popularized in New York City, where one new café actually paid an artist to draw trompe l'oeil water stains on its walls.) The red-and-white-checked tablecloths could have been lifted from Mama Leone's; other pockets of the large dining room mimic a honky-tonk, a vintage diner and a Swiss ski chalet.
Ellie's is all hubbub and chaos. So many different young women approached our table that we could barely tell which one was our waitress. This relay system came off as disorder rather than teamwork, but the real nuisance was the erratic pacing of the meals. On one visit, it took several minutes for a server to approach our table, 10 minutes longer to get a bottle of wine and 20 minutes more for the appetizers to arrive, and then, unaccountably, the entrées appeared in two minutes flat. On both visits, our appetizers and main courses were brought nearly simultaneously. By the time we had finished the starters, of course, the entrées had cooled.
The temperature problem apparently began in the kitchen. So-called baked ricotta cheese, for example, was a refrigerator-cold sphere of cheese plopped like an ice cube into a ramekin full of tepid tomato coulis. The ricotta's strangely slick taste and congealed texture reminded us of nonfat cream cheese, a flavor quite unlike that of the coarse, rustic baked ricotta we enjoyed recently at Trattoria Marcella. Given Mallett and Slay's track record, we expect that these timing and temperature blunders will be quickly corrected.
Now, we understand that with reasonable prices such as these, we're not going to get artisanal cheeses, architectural presentations and napkins pressed into the shape of a turkey's tailfeathers. But we do expect the food to be competently prepared and of reasonably good quality. The worst offender in this regard was panzanella, a Tuscan peasant dish that's usually called bread salad. It was traditionally made by soaking stale bread in water and then squeezing out most of the moisture. Modern versions of the dish call for hunks of day-old bread to be sautéed in olive oil and then added to dressed vegetables at the last minute so that the crisp croutons don't become soggy. In our salad at Ellie's, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions were tossed with bloated, mealy cubes of bread saturated with a puckery red-wine vinaigrette.
Other dishes were more palatable. Stromboli, or "rolled pizza," as the menu bills it, is a Philadelphia specialty that can best be described as a burrito-shaped calzone. The soft, cornmeal-dusted pizza crust surrounds a filling of provolone cheese and vegetables or meats. However, the pastry was understuffed and excessively oily, so that each bite tasted heavy and doughy. Pepper-grilled strip steak, the most expensive item on the menu, is an 8-ounce portion of a cut that's usually exceptionally tender: the boneless top muscle of the short loin, labeled "top loin" at the butcher and often listed on menus as Kansas City or New York strip. This steakette, much of which had to be trimmed away, was correctly prepared, with a rosy interior and a nicely charred surface, but it was inexplicably dry, tough and fatty. An arugula salad nested atop the meat -- a presentation that's now in vogue -- but no other side dishes were served with it.
The most satisfying items on Ellie's menu are the stock Italian-American dishes. A fine appetizer of fried tomatoes -- firm, ripe slices, lightly breaded and sautéed -- is finished with a crumble of Gorgonzola and a drizzle of basil oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. Toasted cannelloni are bite-sized tubes filled with finely ground beef, sprinkled with Parmesan and served with tomato sauce for dipping. Lasagna is composed of broiled cheese insulating layers of pasta, Italian sausage and Slay's "secret" tomato sauce, whose ingredients she eagerly reeled off: tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions, basil, garlic and oregano. (We hope Ellie's will soon bottle and sell the sauce.) A fried-whitefish sandwich -- cod on a toasted bun, with red-pepper and caper mayonnaise on the side -- was plated in an aluminum pie pan lined with waxed paper, a clever alternative to the usual fish 'n' chips basket.
Concentrated flavors make Ellie's homespun desserts alluring. The espresso chocolate-chunk ice cream, which tastes like those $6 mocha freezes you can buy at the mall, is so boldly flavored that we actually found espresso grounds in it. The sticky, chewy caramel brownie is intensely chocolate, though it was served à la mode with vanilla ice cream that could have passed for ice milk. A custardlike confection with the unfortunate name "cheesy lemon mousse" is a velvety blend of mascarpone cheese, lemon liqueur, egg whites and whipped cream. It's prettily presented in a phyllo cup with a few sliced strawberries macerated in reduced balsamic vinegar. What a shame to muddle its clean, tart flavor with a cone of nondairy whipped topping. Remember, when garnishing desserts, use heavy cream. It's a good thing.