There’s a quiet confidence throughout Elma. From the small team comprised of chef-owner James Nardone and sous chef Michael Endres — who share cooking, cleaning, and serving duties — to the minimal decor of white walls and exposed brick, to the homemade breads, pastas, and pastries, each decision here is intentional: Let the food speak for itself.
Yet there’s also continual evolution that Nardone fiercely believes in. Like scrapping breakfast offerings due to ingredient costs and labor issues, making price adjustments, or settling into a core seasonal menu. It’s a bold but necessary move for indie restaurant operators like Nardone who open the doors with the help of a few friends and family.
Maybe it’s Nardone’s former music biz days and endeavors with creatives, artists, and skaters that push his bootstrap approach but he’s also a sensitive guy with serious cooking chops. After all, Elma is named after his maternal grandmother from Casoli, a region of Abruzzo, whose cooking style demonstrated a mix of regional family recipes and Italian-American classics. He often waxes poetic about childhood memories with his large family where “there was never a shortage of macerated grapefruit, pizzelle or biscotti.” It’s these past times when his grandmother taught him to “cook with others in mind and to do it with care” — an ethos he’s carried with him throughout his cooking career. But it’s too easy to say Elma is an Italian BYOB — but this is not just another red sauce spot for the city; it’s a soulful restaurant that celebrates old-world cooking with purveyors that allow Nardone to utilize their products for what they do best. Guests experience it all in a refined, understated atmosphere with only 12 seats in the whole joint.
We spoke to Nardone about debuting a new tasting menu experience this fall where you can expect surprise bites along the way (tableside truffle shavings, anyone?), his favorite ingredients, and what’s ahead for this small but mighty restaurant.
Starting November 24, Elma is open for dinner Thursday through Saturday with seatings at 6:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday with a 5:30 p.m. seating. The six-course tasting menu currently costs $150.
Course 1 | Steak Tartare
Elma’s newest menu includes dishes Nardone has been waiting to cook since opening — and now is the perfect time to debut hearty, richer dishes that vary in textures, temperatures, spice, and sweetness.
The first course is a tried and true classic that gets remixed with international inspiration.
Nardone sources tenderloin from Esposito’s Meats in the Italian Market, where he’s been going his entire life. Now he turns their off-cuts into star attractions like this tartare. The tenderloin is finely diced and mixed with a pecorino aioli for punched-up flavor. The tartare is served on top of buttered and toasted brioche, then finished with horseradish, little pearls of Japanese crispy rice for a slight crunch, and Osetra sturgeon caviar.
“It’s such a well-rounded bite and sets the mood for our guests that the menu will be bold,” says Nardone.
Course 2 | Crab
“We like to roll right into this after the tartare to introduce a lot of acidity and sweetness,” says Nardone.
This dish holds onto warmer months, especially here in Philadelphia where the craving for shellfish and seafood still remains strong well into colder months. Blue crab is formed into crunchy croquettes served on an artichoke with Calabrian chile dressing. It’s layered with Cara Cara orange, fennel, trout roe, nasturtium, and Arbequina olive oil resulting in rich flavors, bright acidity, and subtle heat. (And if you’ve got an aversion to shellfish, don’t worry: allergy and dietary substitutions are not only possible but the kitchen loves the challenge — just give them a heads up in your Resy profile or via email.)
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Course 3 | Barchette
The first pasta course shows off Nardone’s pasta-making skills with care and sophistication — all pastas are made by hand, daily. A sailboat-shaped pasta, barchette is traditionally from Campania, and “does a terrific job of catching sauce” according to Nardone. It’s made with Castle Valley Mill’s hard wheat and served with shrimp and Jimmy Nardello peppers that are super sweet and delicious (their highly anticipated availability is highly coveted) in a sauce of lobster stock, Calabrian chile paste, and lots of butter.
“We finish this dish with salsa verde and delfino cilantro for a burst of herbaceousness,” adds Nardone.
Course 4 | Ricotta Gnudi
This second pasta course features gnudi made with sheep’s milk ricotta served in a black peppercorn and Fontina cheese fonduta. Think: your new favorite version of cacio e pepe. The dish is served with braised rainbow Swiss chard and caramelized cipollini onions to mimic a creamed spinach flavor profile which works extremely well as a warm comforting plate.
Course 5 | New York Strip
This final savory course is about the indulgence of the season: a New York strip with foraged roasted maitake mushrooms. This dish encapsulates the early fall harvest and has French comfort written all over it, detouring from Elma’s Italian roots. Honey nut squash from Row 7 Seed Company, sauce Bordelaise, and fresh Burgundy truffle round out a rich, hearty cold weather dish with nuances of sweetness and salt that will be able to ride out the entire season.
It is also another chance to show off the symbiosis with farms that informs Elma’s menu. Nardone believes it’s extremely important to educate and introduce guests to farmers, purveyors, and producers — and displays the value of giving customers the best premium products he can buy.
“I share farm names whenever I can to share our relationships, so that it doesn’t just end when we get a delivery,” he says.
Course 6 | Raspberry Tart
“For dessert, I wanted to finish with something that took some inspiration from the entire menu,” says Nardone. “It is super balanced and in my opinion our best dessert we’ve showcased yet.”
To achieve this, Nardone starts with a shortbread crust made from Castle Valley Mill’s Einkorn flour which has a nutty flavor and terrific structure for a crispy bite. The tart is filled with raspberry jam and cornflake pastry cream edge to edge and topped with light and crispy meringue. It’s a dessert you immediately want to tear into and hides surprise sweet-and-sour notes to help cleanse your palate.