The moment you exit your car in the ample parking lot behind Spiaggetta Italian Seafood Trattoria on the corner of 98th and 3rd in Stone Harbor, the aroma of garlic and other herbaceous goodness draws you in, instantly welcoming you to this Roman-esque restaurant. Then when you climb the few stairs inside the door, you are welcomed once again, this time by Owner Marco Tarantino and his wife Analia.
In fact, “welcoming” is the catchphrase for this spacious dining room with warm yellow walls, a few cool blue lighting fixtures and vintage black and white photos. The staff, too, is completely welcoming, as well as accommodating to your every need, be it the removal and immediate return of silverware, the split-second suggestion to split salads without even having to ask and the much-appreciated mention of the price after a verbal listing of each nightly special.
Those touches may not mean much to some, and when dining at a casual shore eatery such as this, you don’t necessarily expect such attentiveness. And, more often than not, you just plain ol’ don’t get it.
But Tarantino doesn’t miss a trick, and he won’t let his staff miss anything either. A veteran of the restaurant business since he arrived in the U.S. in 1983, he has worked in and owned restaurants in Philly and its ‘burbs, as well as Stone Harbor. Spiaggetta, pronounced “spee-ah-jet-tah” and meaning “little beach,” is his sole eatery these days. And his razor-sharp focus on his remaining business is what keeps it successful.
“The front of house is what dictates, not necessarily the success of the restaurant, but the future of it,” says Tarantino of his decision to stay present in the restaurant and leave the kitchen to his well-trained cooks. “If there’s a problem, I’m at the table. If there’s a compliment, I’m at the table. You have to be present. I believe in that kind of set up. I’m there, I greet the customers with my wife. The clientele at the shore appreciates the presence of an owner … that’s what I learned throughout the years.”
Born in Rome, Tarantino places a distinct “Roman spin” on several menu items. From the Cacio e Pepe ($26), homemade fettuccine topped with black pepper and pecorino cheese, to the Amatriciana ($27), rigatoni rustici tossed with crushed Roma tomatoes, crispy Guanciale and Romana cheese to the Papalina ($26) fettuccine with an aurora sauce (a light, tomato and garlic cream sauce) with crispy prosciutto, white onions and peas, the menu is like a tour through Italy, with a range of dishes from Bologna to Puglia to towns nearer to the Adriatic. It is a veritable map of Italy with Rome, like the real “boot,” its capital.
Tarantino is pleased that Spiaggetta offers more prevalent Italian items like veal Parmigiana and chicken marsala, but he is naturally proud of his mostly “Roman classic” menu.
“You can find chicken marsala anywhere — maybe mine is better than yours, yours is better than mine. It doesn’t matter. It’s still chicken marsala,” he says in a noticeable but charming accent. “Many Italian restaurants tend to be generic. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. But I try to do something different. Who makes oxtail down the shore? Who makes wild boar?
“We do. And people are very happy about that.”
Family members often lend a hand including wife Analia, whom Tarantino lovingly refers to as the “CEO,” his kids who occasionally help out, and his mother-in-law, i.e. “The Queen,” who makes the homemade gnocchi, fettuccine and pappardelle, as well some desserts.
The Italian owner chuckles at the fact that his two chefs, Thomas Devine, who’s been with Tarantino for five years and Arthur Connelly, a three-year Spiaggetta veteran, have such Irish names. “But they’re good,” he says. “They know what they’re doing and are able to do everything.”
Of special note is the appetizer Roman Suppli’ — some call it arancini, others say rice balls. Regardless, these are among the best around — like arancini on steroids. Huge, egg-shaped fried dough balls ($12) are filled with meat sauce, mozzarella and marinara and served with a side of marinara for extra dipping. Even if you don’t enjoy fried foods, try these.
His famed Cacio e Pepe is the epitome of elegance in simplicity. Swirls of amazing homemade fettuccine are delicately covered with black pepper and pecorino cheese, which supplies the saltiness to counter the pepper. Anything additional would just complicate this dish.
Many desserts are homemade, such as the cannoli filling, just not the shell. But what a filling it is. Dense and delicious, ricotta cheese is laced with powdered sugar and chocolate chips, creating one of the best cannolis this side of South Philly.
Tarantino is a businessman at heart. He knows what matters most to diners — and that’s the food. So he keeps his décor “classic, not that fancy, nothing overbearing — as long as you are comfortable.” As for the food, he knows how imperative it is to keep up with the product and reputation, or risk losing customers.
“You have to have good product, you have to deliver, carry out the expectations,” he says. “It’s like any other business. You have to run it like a business.”