Quick quiz: Name the restaurant couple who have transformed 13th Street in recent years.
If you came up with the power duo of Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, that's understandable. The creators of Lolita, Barbuzzo, and Jamonera have certainly been the engine behind the metamorphosis of 13th and Sansom into the buzzy corner of "Midtown Village."
I'm thinking of another couple, just a bit farther north, who have reclaimed their own stretch of 13th Street. If the names Michael and Jeniphur Pasquarello don't quite have the star-power recognition of "ValeMar," it's no surprise. The Pasquarellos' stretch has largely remained hidden, tucked between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets into an urban canyon that dips below a derelict railroad track and slices between some once-forgotten industrial buildings. Now anchors of a residential neighborhood that in the last decade has been reborn as Philly's "Loft District," their first restaurants have been guarded as secret treasures by those neighbors in the know.
Cafe Lift, carved nearly 10 years ago from the concrete bones of the former Keystone Cap factory, was the unofficial cafeteria for Inquirer staffers craving bountiful salads and paninis (before the newspaper's move last summer, at least). And it remains a favorite for Philadelphia School District lunchers and hipster brunchers seeking frittatas off the beaten path. The Pasquarellos' second venture, Prohibition Taproom, was the craft-beer-bar answer for the growing number of neighbors filling those speedily rehabbing condo lofts. This young crowd doesn't have to travel to Northern Liberties or Fairmount anymore to fill their growlers, chomp into a juicy burger, or munch through plates of crispy, tempura-fried green beans.
I doubt many (if any) of either group spent much time dining at Yum Yum, the long-closed Chinese corner joint that has since been replaced by the Pasquarellos' newest creation, Bufad. One simply needs to utter the key words here - wood-fired Neapolitan pizza - to be reassured the trend-seekers are coming to 13th and Spring Garden now.
And with good reason. The Pasquarellos have lent this once time-beaten corner a hot blast of pizzeria hip, revival-style. With classic rock pumping over the speakers, late-daytime sunshine fills the long room clad in reclaimed planks and exposed brick, with a crowd in knit caps and tats settling around seasonal slices of Roman-style "SPQR" square pizzas at tables hewed from planks of vinegar-stained maple fixed atop red I-beams.
Behind the marble-topped counter in the open kitchen, a steel-wrapped hearth filled with logs glows our night at 866 degrees. All the better for the quick-puff bake of Bufad's personal-size Neapolitan pies, which get scooped with a long paddle and "raised to the pizza gods" in the dome for a final moment of blistering, smoky heat.
As the neighborhood gentrification wheel turns, the wood-fired pizzeria has become as essential an accoutrement as the BYO, the gastropub, or the Third Wave cafe. And Bufad - slang from Michael's Calabrian grandma, Clara, who abbreviated "l'abbuffata" to refer to someone who had overeaten - has all the makings of a go-to neighborhood cornerstone for a casual and affordable meal built with a little style and handcrafted, quality ingredients. From the Roman-style "SPQR" slices topped with potatoes and rosemary to fresh salads, creative Neapolitan rounds, and house-churned salted caramel gelato, the concept is appealing.
It's BYOB, but its proximity to growlers filled from Prohibition's many craft-beer taps keeps those liquor dollars in the Pasquarello family.
And the best flavors here retain that connection, too, with Grandma Clara's inspiration hovering over most. Her crispy bread crumbs, fried with garlic, chilies, and anchovies (the salty fishy tang, Michael surmises, was a thrifty paesana alternative to Parmesan), lend their tangy crunch to creamy burrata cheese scattered with the sweet-spice of golden raisins and chili oil. They also add a toasty texture to the piquancy of the artichoke hearts and Sicilian olive pizza dabbed with creamy goat cheese.
Clara's classic salad mix of diced salami, hard cheese, and celery, likewise, becomes the homey core of a Tritato salad that does modern riffs on seasonal add-ins, like the fava and cannellini beans that spilled from a cup of tender lettuce like spring.
Pasquarello and chef Lauren Weitman make an effort to keep this ever-changing menu seasonal, from the spicy mushrooms of spring set over a crispy disk of skillet-roasted smoked mozzarella to the shaved asparagus scattered like confetti over creamy horseradish bechamel with speck ham and a cracked egg for one of the more successful white Neapolitan pies.
I'm not sure what the point is of featuring spring pea soup if its vibrant color is cooked to a khaki-green broth so thin that whatever crab is spooned on top (not much) sinks to the bottom. But that dish points to some of the details that still hold this menu back from its potential.
I enjoyed many of the salads here, like the antipasto with remolata-topped roasted beets and sweet carrots paired with salsa verde. But the plain dough triangles of "pizza bianca" served alongside were so hard, we could barely bite through them. Ditto for the otherwise tasty ricotta panna cotta with tangy broccoli rabe and toasted almonds.
My biggest hesitation is that the pizzas - usually so appealing in their toppings - also often seemed to be missing the kind of subtle touch that can elevate one cool new pizzeria above the rest. Bufad's Neapolitan crust itself is good, complex, chewy, and leopard-ed with char marks. But the classic Margherita lacks the flavor pop of a brighter sauce. Broccoli rabe, prosciutto, and mustard-spiked white beans are a smart combination. But the pureed beans were layered too thickly on the bottom. The mortadella pie would have been better with less sweetness from the rhubarb mostarda.
And yet, just when I begin to think I've become too spoiled by our sudden wealth of great new pizzerias to fully appreciate this pleasant new outpost, Bufad's hearth serves forth a true creative gem: a round of oregano-kissed marinara topped with house-made lamb-and-pork sausage, its smoky cumin-cinnamon spice lifted by fresh torn mint and the pop of peas.
It's good enough to be a draw on its own, and maybe to begin to earn the Pasquarellos' Loft District stretch of 13th Street the kind of wider attention it deserves.
1240 Spring Garden St.,
Michael and Jeniphur Pasquarello continue their mission to almost single-handedly feed the city's budding Loft District, adding this wood-fired pizzeria to their 13th Street lineup that already includes Cafe Lift and Prohibition Taproom. The stylish, reclaimed-wood decor and seasonally tuned, affordable menu is appealing, even if the creative takes on Neapolitan pizzas and "SPQR" Roman-style square slices can sometimes use some tweaks to reach their full potential.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Burrata salad (with chili oil, raisins, and asparagus); antipasti; Tritato salad; baked scamorza; "SPQR" square slices: potato and rosemary; Rossa. Neapolitan-style pizzas: Margherita; lamb merguez; artichoke, goat cheese, and Sicilian olive; asparagus with speck, egg, and horseradish cream. Strawberry cake; affogato.
BYOB An Italian "pizza wine" like aglianico or nero d'avola is the logical choice. But beer fans can pop by Bufad's next-door sibling, Prohibition Taproom, for a growler from one of its nine craft taps.
WEEKEND NOISE A reasonable 83 decibels (including classic-rock soundtrack) makes for a sound level that's mellow by pizzeria standards. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Entire menu Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Pizzas, $10 to $13.
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible (there is one step at entrance, but bathroom is accessible).
Street parking only.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Sa-Bai-Dee in Upper Darby. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.