How Arpeggio strikes the right chord in Montco

Owners Mary Cullom and Hamdy Khalil at Arpeggio, in Spring House Village Center.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

 

Twenty-one years ago, Arpeggio opened as a rarity in central Montgomery County: It was an Italian/Mediterranean BYOB with a wood-burning oven and a fairly-priced menu.

The restaurant was hot from the start.

Literally.

When owners Mary Gigliotti Cullom and Hamdy Khalil lit the oven for the very first time in July 1995, the fire department was summoned. A chimney design issue was identified and quickly fixed. But firefighters initially had insisted that the scent of burning wood was a sign that the building, in a strip of stores in Spring House Village Center, was on fire. In fact, few of them had seen wood-burning hearths in a contemporary restaurant, Cullom said.

Since then, Arpeggio has expanded - first in 2002, when it took space next door and tripled in size. In November, as the shopping center is razed to make way for a redevelopment that will include a Whole Foods store, Arpeggio will move into a new, larger building closer to the front of the property, at the intersection of Sumneytown and Bethlehem Pikes in Lower Gwyedd.

The move should not involve a closing, Cullom said. The new incarnation, designed by DAS Architects with a kitchen layout by Judy Spielman, will have about 120 seats inside (up from 70), and 50 to 60 seats on a covered deck (there are 28 seats now on the sidewalk).

In a chat last week, Cullom told Arpeggio's story, and it turns out that much of the credit is due to Mother Nature.

Were you always in the restaurant business?

Oh, no. I played viola. I was working with the Baltimore Symphony on a year's contract, just to substitute. It happened to be the year of ice storms. I was commuting and I couldn't do it because of the ice storms, so I got a little apartment down there . ..and I needed a restaurant to go to. I found the restaurant, and Hamdy was part owner. I became friendly with him and all the other people that owned the restaurant. It was Mediterranean. They had wood-burning oven pizza, very small menu, very small kitchen, tiny little place. 

I loved his food. He was running the place, and the other owners were never there and one of them went to Egypt for 30 days. Hamdy said, "I'm going to make a different pasta every day for 30 days."

I said, "OK, yeah. Go for it." He made them, and every single one was better than the next. One day, I said, I had always thought about opening a restaurant, particularly a pizza restaurant, with my ex-husband. He seemed like he knew what he was doing and that maybe we'd be a good pair. I could learn. I said, "Why don't you come up and open a restaurant with me in Philadelphia," and he said, "Sure, I love Philly." That was it.

How did you find Spring House, though? It's not exactly in the center of the universe.

We had looked and looked and looked. We really looked on the Main Line, mostly, and in the city. He wanted to be in the city, I wanted to be on the Main Line, but we couldn't find any good spaces that had good parking. It was very difficult and very expensive. We were just about to give up when I saw this ad in the paper for a California pizza restaurant in Spring House called Eclectic Rex. I drove up here and it was just so cute, and they had a good business. I called Hamdy that day, and said, "Come up here tomorrow. I think this is it." We bought it the next day.

When you opened, what was the concept like?

It was similar to what we have, but much smaller menu - pizza, pasta, Mediterranean, salads. Our main, main menu has not changed much. What's really changed is the addition of all of the specials. We have things that are seasonal that are on there, and we have things that we just came up with and created and people love them, so we kept them there. We kept our main menu and just made all the changes on the specials. They have gotten bigger, and bigger, and bigger. So, the specials are on all the time now.

So your specials have specials?

Yes. The specials have specials that are more seasonal, but there's other things that people just like. We'll keep the same thing all winter and the same thing all summer, you know, the same salad all summer as a special.

What are your biggest sellers?

Probably a margherita pizza, all the pizzas. Margherita pizza is the best selling pizza, and the basilica pasta, which is just pasta with tomato sauce, is our best selling pasta. The Caesar is our best selling salad, chicken Parmesan is one of the best selling entrees and the lamb grill is one of our best selling entrees that's on specials. The basic stuff sells the best. Not that people don't eat everything else, too, but if you want the top sellers ... Hummus is also one of our top sellers.

What do you like about the restaurant business?

I love the people, I love the creativity, I love the food, I love to eat, I love my employees. We have the nicest employees, the nicest customers, loyal, sweet, kind people. I went out to dinner last night with some customers. They insisted that they wanted me to try a restaurant that was one of their favorites, and it's like an hour away, and they drove me, and they brought wine. I loved doing that. It was a great night. We had a great time.

Do you ever think of getting a liquor license?

No. I think it changes the entire ambiance of a restaurant. I think when you add a bar, it would be come a less family friendly place. For us, we're really ... I think people like the BYOB. It saves them money, and they can bring what they like. A lot of our customers are very particular about their wine. [Arpeggio has wine lockers for regulars, as do many steakhouses.] I personally get irritated when I go somewhere and I have to buy something that's on the list and there's nothing that I really like. I think all those reasons. In this economy, I think one of the reasons that we've been so successful is that we've tried to keep our price points within reason with a large variety. You could come in with a family of four and spend $25 or $30, or you could spend $125; it depends what you want to eat. It's also a place where people can come and they can get pizza or pasta for the kids and a nice entrée for themselves, so they can really have a night out and everybody is happy.

In terms of your learning curve at becoming a restaurateur, tell me some experiences you've had.

The first thing I did, since I was in Baltimore, I went to the National Restaurant Association and joined. I did a lot of research. I wanted to find out what purveyors there were, who was good, who was not good. I also did a lot of research on running a restaurant. It was great because it was only a 45-minute drive to their building, and you could photocopy anything you wanted; you could see anything you wanted about anything. It was really helpful. I spent almost a year doing that, actually. I did that, plus, my ex-sister-in-law is a chef, a great chef, and she really was very inspiring to me. Every time I'd see her cook. She had a place down in Atlanta for awhile, she was amazing, and I really relied a lot on her and her advice and expertise. She helped me a lot. She taught me how to bake. She taught me how to emulsify. She taught me how to do everything.

Do you cook here?

I did for a long time. I don't so much anymore. I do the desserts.

How have diets had an impact on your business?

I'll tell you a cute story. We expanded, we got the space next door ... and we brought customers in to see it as it was being built. The wine lockers had just come in and I had a lady say, "Oh, that's so great. I can't believe you have wine lockers. Now I can have a place to put my whole wheat pasta and you can cook it." When whole wheat was coming out, we had tried it, like every year from '96 on - but nobody was interested. Then the South Beach Diet came out and everybody wanted whole wheat. I looked at Hamdy, and I said, "You know, I think we should try whole wheat pita again, and try the whole wheat pasta, because if she wants to put hers in the locker, there must be others." We tried it again, and we now sell as much whole wheat as white.

In terms of gluten free, though? We have gluten-free pasta, we have gluten-free noodles, we have a lot - gluten-free soy sauce, gluten free sauces. We have a full gluten-free menu, actually.

How much of your business is gluten-free?

I would say, probably 20 percent. We can accommodate any diet, because everything in our place is made to order. There's prep, of course, but everything is put together to order. When people are on a diet, it's easier for us to separate things. We have special water boiling, just for the gluten-free pasta. We make it to order. We don't make it ahead of time. That makes it really easy. If somebody doesn't want fat, they don't want butter, they don't want oil, if they want things dry or if they want to switch vegetables, we're very accommodating that way. It's the only way.

Do you still perform?

No, I don't have time. I go and fill in sometimes. My ex-husband is the conductor of an orchestra on the Main Line, and I have gone there, Lower Merion Symphony. I've gone and helped out there. I just don't have time. I wish I could do it more. In fact, he had a concert today I was supposed to play, but I can't, I don't have time.