On one of the coldest winter days in recent memory, I took a seat inside cozy Mr. Joe’s Cafe in South Philadelphia and watched the Pecorino snow down atop a meal that would warm my bones.
The grated cheese dusted a bowl of “scrippelle” soup whose rich broth bobbed with rolled-up crepes. It sprinkled over crusty hunks of Italian bread smeared with butter and spicy chili flakes. It frosted a mountaintop of gnocchi in deep red tomato sauce crowned with a flank steak braciola cooked to such tenderness the tug of a fork unfurled its patiently braised roulade into silken threads.
This throwback luncheonette at Greenwich and South Eighth Streets is Italian red-gravy cooking at its homiest, a passion project of family recipes steeped in Vince Termini Sr.'s big steam kettles in the back of the Termini family’s legendary bakery across the street. Food is served with little pretense; complimentary glasses of “burgundy” wine are poured from a jug by manager Anna Maria Di Gregorio.
There’s a certain magic to the experience. “Senior,” as Vince is known, still does the cooking at the cafe in his semiretirement, channeling dishes taught to him by his Neapolitan nonna, Adelina Basso, for the 30 seats that occupy the original space where his father, Giuseppe, cofounded Termini Bros. in 1921. I can understand why Michael Schulson, Philly’s prince of mega-restaurant concepts, and his wife and partner, Nina Tinari, were charmed enough to hold their company holiday parties there — and to eventually propose a much bigger collaboration with the Terminis in Center City.
“'I’m 80 years old, Michael — I can’t do this! What, are you crazy?'” Schulson recalls as Senior’s initial reply.
When my fork got stuck in a far less tender braciola of undercooked, underflavored flank steak at their swanky new Giuseppe & Sons on Sansom Street, I found myself with the same doubts. Capturing South Philly’s distinct chicken Parm patois on a grander scale has proved far more elusive than expected — even with Senior perched pricelessly at his special chair by the kitchen door, spot-checking plates as he sips espresso.
It raises a bigger question: Can something as authentically traditional as Mr. Joe’s Cafe survive its Schulsonization? (*Schul-son-i-zation: The expression of a theme restaurant concept on a massive scale, designed with dramatic style, often in a cave-dark basement.)
There’s an earnest determination here to get it right. And I remain optimistic — even if Giuseppe & Sons’ early flavors have not consistently been as on pitch as I’d hoped. In a way, it’s important that they succeed. Though Philly has an abbondanza of great Italian restaurants of various styles, few non-chain options in Center City present South Philly’s old-school Italian American flavors — one of our birthright cuisines — with any measure of serious polish. And so many essential elements here are already in place.
The space is another magnetic destination from the Schulson Collective team behind Double Knot, Sampan, Independence Beer Garden, and Harp & Crown. The retro luncheonette on Giuseppe’s ground floor, which serves classic Italian sandwiches, Termini pastries, and soups during the day, has unrealized potential — but currently it’s essentially a hoagie shop front for the glamorous supper club swinging downstairs at night to the tunes of Louis Prima and platters of Sunday gravy anchored by Martin’s sausage and the tender meatballs made with the three-meat recipe from Senior’s wife, Barbara Termini. And they’re very good.
But to experience that, you first have to pass through the eerily empty luncheonette, where a lonesome hostess sends you downstairs into a serpentine corridor. It deposits guests into a vast subterranean world of cushy tan banquettes, a sunken dining room with blond wood accents, mosaic-tiled floors, and a jam-packed front bar that can back up into the narrow corridor like traffic at the Holland Tunnel.
“Did you say, ‘mosh pit?!’ We must be the same age!” said the woman in leather pants with cigarette-Negroni breath who ran me over in the bar crush of Restaurant Week. Once I was seated, however, it was clear that this 200-seat space was designed by Tinari and Brooklyn’s Home Studios to absorb a crowd with relative comfort. Extensive soundproofing allows for easy conversation and a sense of intimacy without dulling the energy. Too bad they didn’t invest as much in better lighting. The marquee lights here cast a dim amber gloaming across the room that’s perpetually strafed with a dragnet of iPhone lights.
If poor lighting is one sure hallmark of Schulsonization, one reliable plus is professional service, and Giuseppe’s well-prepared staff brought outgoing attentiveness and useful advice on the Italian-inspired cocktails and big list of wines. I only wish our server had mentioned that the suggested glass of Barolo (not noted on our menus) was $28 — more than twice the other glasses.
Most of the food prices, though, are fair considering the Rittenhouse address, with two-thirds of the entrees under $20, making Giuseppe’s a higher-quality alternative to those seeking a big-night vibe in Center City from an independent instead of an ersatz Little Italy chain like Maggiano’s. Check averages with liquor have been about $50.
Having the Termini family on board — Senior or one of his sons, Vinnie and Joey, are on site every night — lends the project old neighborhood cred, not to mention fresh cannoli piped on site with sweet and creamy “rigot” cheese. (Try the banana pie for a sleeper hit.) But the Terminis are bakers by trade, not big-time restaurateurs. That’s where Schulson’s crew comes in. However, the food here needs to be better than South Philly — if not at least just as good — for Giuseppe & Sons to fulfill its potential to be more than a theme restaurant.
There were a few dishes that rang true. Perfectly cooked big shrimp scampi came glossed in lemony garlic butter with pickled peppers and bread crumbs. Housemade orecchiette was piled high with crumbled sausage and broccoli rabe that struck the perfect spark of peppery spice without getting too bitter. A broiler-bubbled crock of earthy veal tripe in red sauce topped with a micro-crust of Parmigiana proved that old-school grandpa favorites don’t have to be dumbed down.
But those dishes were the exceptions. No matter how many preopening tastings and recipe practice runs Senior has done with the staff overseen by executive chef Wesley Fields, too many dishes here were slightly out of register after scaling up. The clams Oreganata were delicious but were all bread crumb stuffing with too little clam. The Giuseppe salad with gem lettuce, giardiniera, and soppressata was skimpy on the meats and pickled veggies. The bellwether dish of spaghetti and crabs came dramatically topped with a hard shell, its red sauce filled with crustacean meat. But the tomato gravy was just too sweet, the fresh-extruded spaghetti too soft, and the overall impact of the flavors surprisingly, disappointingly bland. A minimalist riff on lobster fra diavolo with a split crustacean over linguine and chili oil was equally flat, with hardly a flicker of devilish heat.
The same mild fate awaited dishes at the luncheonette upstairs, where the lentil soup was strangely watery, the sandwich rolls from Atlantic City’s legendary Formica Bros. Bakery had turned disappointingly squishy in transit, and the roast pork, though superbly tender, was unexpectedly muted in its typical gusto. (“More garlic, Michael! More rosemary! More Chablis!” Senior often chides. “Did you add enough rosemary and garlic, Michael?” The answer is no.)
Of course, these traditional dishes are deliberately simple, a fact Schulson’s crew clearly respects in theory. But their success depends entirely on a knowing touch at the stove, and that’s been sporadic. What good is the most gorgeous veal chop if the agrodolce pepper sauce has no sweet-and-spicy-sour voltage? Or a Marsala sauce that tastes like brown gravy minus the Marsala. Or a clam linguine that lacks an oceanic savor to its simple sauce and features too many empty shells. Or a wild boar Bolognese that’s full of savory herbs, but left too acidic, and artlessly shoveled over frilly ribbon noodles into a pile that couldn’t have been more heavy.
There were some memorable successes, to be sure, like the baby artichoke hearts broiled with anchovy-tinged bread crumbs, the arancini stuffed with smoked mozzarella, and the moist hunk of swordfish (just $22) topped Sicilian style with Senior’s piquant eggplant caponata. A stack of coaster-thin chicken Parmigiana cutlets (Senior’s secret: no flour dredge in the breading) would’ve been the best chicken Parm sandwich in the city — had the chosen roll not been a sweet and eggy brioche.
Subtle choices and tiny touches like these matter, and can hopefully be fine-tuned to translate Mr. Joe’s homey flavors on a scale suitable for a fully Schulsonized glamour palace that churns through 500 customers a night. It may be a matter of seasoning those new pots and pans — as well as seasoning the chefs working on the line. The well-practiced Termini’s cannoli, their crunchy tubes bubbly from wine in their pastry, made the transition easily. Now the rest of the menu must follow.
1523 Sansom St., 215-399-9199; giuseppesons.com
South Philly’s Italian red-gravy tradition gets a glamorous Center City showcase in this vast bi-level complex with a swanky subterranean supper club and ground-floor luncheonette, a collaboration between the Termini Bros. Bakery family and the Schulson restaurant group. The retro setting is date-night gorgeous, the service and Italian-themed drinks are fine, the prices are fair and the ambition to elevate one of the area’s birthright cuisines is noble. But supersizing the homey inspiration of Vince Termini Sr.’s tiny Mr. Joe’s Café in the old neighborhood has proven far harder than expected, and the delicate balance of simple, familiar flavors is elusively out of register in too many dishes. A ratings jump by year’s end is quite possible if this kitchen can somehow master the translation of grandpa’s touch for the masses.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Lunch: roast pork sandwich; chicken Parmigiana sandwich. Dinner: Meatballs; stuffed artichokes; tripe Parmigiana; shrimp scampi; tomato pie; arancini; orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe; crabs and spaghetti; swordfish caponata; sweetbreads Marsala; Sunday Gravy; veal chop; cannoli; lemon pie. banana cream pie.
DRINKS A well-rounded beverage program that is deep and on-theme is one of Giuseppe’s best assets, from the big Italian wine list (around 300 bottles), to solid wines by the glass (from Falanghina to lush Ripasso and Nebbiolo on draft). A dozen cocktails riff on Italian flavors, from a good Negroni to house creations built on amari and South Philly street names (get the Iseminger, Mifflin and 10th & Tasker). Check out the standout digestivo list, with multiple grappas and a unique collection of vintage amari.
WEEKEND NOISE Considering the noise potential for a big dining room with 200 diners, a substantial investment in soundproofing has paid dividends, with levels that allow for easy conversation without dulling the lively atmosphere. The jazzy soundtrack is the loudest element.
IF YOU GO Luncheonette open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner downstairs Sunday and Monday, 5-10 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, until 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight.
Dinner entrees, $12-$34.
All major cards.
Wheelchair accessible through elevator.