Take a hungry stroll down the 200 block of Chestnut Street, and you can view the future of Old City unfolding in a few divergent - and potentially concerning - directions.
Will it be swallowed into the hookah-puffed mist of the vaping bars and head shops that have suddenly materialized like an annex of South Street-like decline? Will it rise from the rumble and dust of the giant construction hole at Third Street that, in 2017, is to become the Museum of the American Revolution and reaffirm this district's prime role as a tourist destination?
Or, will you find evidence that Old City is still a cutting-edge neighborhood that generates the kind of crafty amenities - cool coffee shops (Menagerie) and dining destinations (Fork/High St., Amada, Buddakan) - that make real Philadelphians want to live and work there?
There's a bit of it all swirling about this evolving crossroads. But as I devoured my way through Capofitto Pizzeria and Gelateria, I'm reassured that at least one of Old City's newest additions is definite proof of the latter.
For all the neighborhood's higher-end dining success, Capofitto answers the need for a hand-crafted dining experience that is also easily accessible and affordable. The menu tops out at $19 a pizza. And the Italian-centric drink menu is a template for thoughtful quality at fair prices, from Aperol-blushed cocktails to Baladin "Floreale" on draft and a well-chosen wine list at largely $50 and under that includes a very tasty bottle of Piceno "Nero Scuro" (a.k.a. the "perfect pizza wine") at $31 a bottle.
I know, I know. More pizza. Just what Philadelphia needed. But if it's created with as much dedication to craft as Stephanie and John Reitano bring, one as good as Capofitto can represent a quality-of-life improvement. And these two bring the same commitment to the details of authenticity that elevates the gelati at their Capogiro chain far beyond mere ice cream.
Those gelati cases glow here, too, a rainbow of blood orange sorbetto, creamy green Sicilian pistachio gelato, and midnight-black waves of unthinkably dark chocolate, among others, anchoring the bar near the front of Capofitto's long space.
What's new from the Reitanos here is a full-on restaurant toward the back of the postindustrial space (a former paper company), a 58-seat dining room lined by colorfully striped banquettes set beneath white pressed-tin walls hung with antique mirrors. The lighting from Edison bulb chandeliers is moody (if a bit uneven), amped by a bluesy sound track. And with a cheery, well-informed young staff to guide you, it is simply a pleasant oasis away from the Old City hubbub to nibble on sliced-to-order salumi platters, crisply fried eggplant balls, and an appealing menu of homey pastas, fresh salads, and Neapolitan pizzas.
And it turns out Stephanie Reitano is as obsessed with dough as she is dairy. She spent time in Naples working alongside one of its pizza masters, Ciro Salvo, and she learned much during her apprenticeship, from the quick-fermented, never-refrigerated dough that's full of complex flavor (a bit of old dough added to each new batch), to finding the fickle hot spots inside the 1,000-degree oven where pies cook to a perfect tawny crisp in less than 90 seconds.
Of course, every new pizzaiolo has a learning curve. When Capofitto opened in September, some of the pies were as misshapen as rugby balls. But the crust already showed the delicacy and dynamic flavor that make it one of the city's finest - a micro-crackle on the puffy outer frame giving way to a soft core that's moist without being doughy.
Capofitto's best toppings are either the simplest, such as the exceptional Marinara, a cheese-free crimson round of sweet San Marzano puree scattered with fresh oregano and an entire garlic clove sliced into roasty slivers moments before entering the hearth, or the most unlikely. That would be the Ciro, an ode to one of Reitano's mentor's signatures that pairs pungent gorgonzola and creamy buffalo mozzarella with shaved red onions and . . . lardo. It sounds over the top. But the lardo (cured pork fat) dissolves into a translucent sheen that elevates each bite of Ciro into something luminous.
Another of my favorites, the prosciutto pie, is a riff on a common style. But Reitano's is distinguished by the way her silky ham is cleverly suspended above the Margherita's warmth by a clover-like patch of springy micro-arugula.
When Capofitto stumbles, it's usually from a heavy hand with salt. A number of promising pizzas - the sausage with broccoli rabe, the Genovese with eggplant and ricotta salata, and a special with stewed (slightly greasy) wild boar - landed just on the salty side of the seasoning divide.
An otherwise-fantastic homey soup with white beans, kale, and pumpkin was right at the edge. A few of the salads were unevenly seasoned, too. But for the most part, they featured smart combinations of fresh ingredients - such as the Melograno with local butter lettuce, hazelnuts, and gorgonzola in a blood orange vinaigrette; or the frisee tangled with soft cannelini beans, fennel fronds, and a house-conserved tuna so lightly poached it was almost buttery.
The teardrop-strung link of house sausage was another on the high-seasoning border. But it was so vividly juicy with wild fennel and wine that it was impossible to resist.
This kitchen has a nice touch with slow-cooked ragus of lamb and rabbit, though I wish their puffy egg-pasta ribbons were just a notch finer. My favorite pasta was the most basic, a spaghetti "Ca'Pummarola" Reitano made for the Neapolitan artisans who built her oven that is essentially a simple red sauce, but elusively good, infused with fresh basil and sweet onion, and a steal at $11.
The huge panini are a great value at lunch, the sublimely pillowy focaccia (Genovese-style, with lard) stuffed with prosciutto and creamy buffalo mozz, or locally cured bresaola with goat cheese and crunchy pickled red onions.
To finish, of course, there are two dozen gelati made here daily, which, in theory, gives Capofitto a spoon-up over others in the genre. Praline sweet potato is a new favorite. A new brand of freezer case, though, has draft issues that let some of the gelati become uncharacteristically icy by late afternoon. It's nothing a hot shot of espresso drizzled over top for an affogato can't remedy. But Reitano the perfectionist is already working toward a more permanent fix: "I often say we're actually in the refrigeration business."
In the case of Capofitto, they're in the business of helping make the future Old City a little brighter.
VERY GOOD (TWO OUT OF FOUR BELLS)
233 Chestnut St., 215-897-9999; capofittoforno.com
The team behind Capogiro has plunged into Neapolitan pizza-making with as much passion, style, and attention to authenticity as it does gelato. The result is a handsome dual-concept space that's an oasis of affordable sophistication amidst a touristy hookah bar stretch of Old City, where pizzaiola Stephanie Reitano makes some of the best thin-crust pies in town alongside homey Italian pastas and paninis, plus a fairly priced drink list strong with fun Italian wines and craft beers. Consistency issues (though with steady improvement) show Capofitto has not yet reached its full potential. But it's already a bright addition to both its neighborhood and the crowded pizza scene.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Panini (prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella; bresaola); salads (Melograno; tonno); salumi and formaggi boards; meatballs; arancini; eggplant balls; spaghetti ca'pummarola; rabbit tagliatelle; pizzas (marinara; Margherita; prosciutto di Parma; Tartufella; Ciro); gelati and sorbetti; affogato.
DRINKS A well-rounded and thoughtfully chosen selection of Italian-themed craft beers, cocktails, and wines. The wines focus on lesser-known Italian varietals (Est! Est!! Est!!!, Pallagrello Nero) that are well-priced, with almost all bottles around $50 or less, large 6 oz. glass pours, and mark-ups that are barely double. The Piceno Nero Scuro is indeed the "perfect pizza wine" and a great value at $31 a bottle. But also try the Di Giovanna rosé, the crispy Fattoria Laila Verdicchio, the juicy black Poderi Foglia Aglianco. Great beers, including Del Ducato NuovaMaino, Loverbeer Brugna, or other Euros (Ichtegem, Bluebird Bitter, Schneider Weisse, or Einstock Icelandic White Ale), are excellent choices.
WEEKEND NOISE A reasonable 82 decibels but occasionally loud music can push it to 88 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11:30 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Coffee and pastries Monday through Friday beginning 7:30 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday beginning 9 a.m.
Dinner entrees, $11-$19.
All major cards.
Street parking only.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Juniper Common.