Inside Serpico

Peter Serpico behind the line at Serpico, 604 South St.

His name is on the facade, but Peter Serpico is one of the lowest-key chefs you'll get to know.

Pose for a photo? He knows he has to, since he's opening a restaurant. He winces, looks forward, and returns to work.

Serpico - the solo debut of the former culinary director of David Chang's Momofuku empire and the opening chef de cuisine/partner at NYC's Momofuku Ko - opens Friday, June 21 at 604 South St. (As the management's business cards read: "Yes, South Street.")

The timing worked well. Serpico said he "needed a change" from New York City a year ago. Stephen Starr was interested in hosting Serpico in his hometown. They toured the city and settled on a former Foot Locker store on South Street, Serpico said, because they like the energy. Serpico imported two former colleagues, Anne Strong (as sous chef) and the Wilmington-raised Richard Fell II (as general manager/beverage director).

Serpico describes Serpico - serving dinner only - as "casual - kind of a neighborhood spot. But great if you're looking to celebrate an anniversary or birthday, but also [a place] if you want to get something to eat on a weekly basis."

Serpico and Starr enlisted designer Thomas Schlesser, the clean-line specialist behind NYC's Boulud Sud, David Burke Kitchen, and Fatty ’Cue, plus Chicago's Blackbird and avec. Schlesser's layout called for a large open kitchen built around a custom Jade range. (Jimi Yui designed the kitchen itself.) Bordering the kitchen on two sides is an 18-seat chef’s counter where you can watch the action, and in front, 30 additional seats. “Blackboard” walls ring the dining room, whose walls are exposed gray brick. A large rectangular lighting gantry dominates the middle. A five-seat bar is more or less plunked up front; list includes bottled beer, sake, wine, and cocktails.

The menu, he says, is "contemporary American." I see a few Asian elements from Momofuku Ko - the two-Michelin-starred East Village destination where Serpico oversaw 10-plus-course, $125-a-head tasting menus - as well as Italian influences. I've annotated the menu here.

Prices are being set, but smaller plates are priced in the teens; top freight is a steamed egg custard topped with ridiculously expensive Siberian sturgeon caviar for $30. Guests usually order two or three plates, so I'll guess the tab at $70 plus drinks. You'll want to order the deep-fried duck leg, which plays out like a lobster roll in that it's built on a split Martin's potato hot dog roll but contains crunchy duck. Serpico works with Zone 7, a regional farm coop that links chefs to small Pennsylvania farmers.

Get a coffee, too. Serpico roasts Burundi beans on his flat-top just beyond the beans' first crack.

Serpico, 31 - who lives with his fiancee, a nursing student - was born in South Korea and adopted at age 2 by a couple from Maryland who had adopted twins and have one biological child. His earliest food memory is his grandmother's apple pie: "We'd drive to Chicago and it didn't matter if we got there at 2 a.m., we'd sit down and have her apple pie, which was the best in the world. Always served at room temperature." He got his first restaurant job at 15 in a local pizza shop. "We dumping bags into big pots, but it was still cooking," he said. He went to Baltimore International College for culinary and packed off at age 19 for what he thought would be a short stay in New York.

Cooking was not a grand calling. "I just like the freedom," he said. "I don't like sitting behind a computer. I don't like sitting down. I wanted to do something active." 

Though he says his "end goal is to have a family to make my family proud of me," more immediately he is learning the management side. "I want [my staff] to look up to me," he said. "I'm learning that. I feel like everyone needs a mentor. I had a good mentor in Dave Chang. I know everyone needs to be treated differently, and we're learning as a team." He tackled one crisis recently when a cook walked out before opening, and convinced a buddy to step in to help. 

Serpico knows he is under a microscope - turning out in an edgy food in a mainly meat-and-potatoes town.

Asked about the hype surrounding the restaurant, Serpico winces again.

"I try not to hear it," he said. "We're just trying to provide good food and good service."