You might think of South Philly as our Little Italy. I’ll make a case for a different neighborhood. Also this week, I find interesting Lebanese cooking in a Malvern shopping center and tasty sandwiches from a hole in the wall in Fishtown. And Craig LaBan is here, all choked up about a spring vegetable.
"Another Italian restaurant?"
Restaurateurs go with what they know people want, and that's Italian food.
That all makes sense, but it's hard to explain what's happening right now in the Rittenhouse/Fitler Square area.
More recent comers include the weeks-old Ambrosia, tucked away in the former Sandy's at 24th and Locust, and Trattoria Carina at 22nd and Spruce. Also, the venerable Mama Palma’s at 23rd and Spruce Streets will reopen in several weeks as Palma’s Cucina, with an upgraded menu that's lighter on the pizza.
More immediately, May 8 marks the debut of Cotoletta Fitler Square at 23rd and Pine Streets, which last was Tria. It's the downtown debut of the popular Belmont Hills BYOB whose cutlets send fans into fits of drooling. In the sunny space dressed in splashes of bold colors, Beth and Lou Amadio have picked up a bar stocked with the requisite spirits (six specialty cocktails named after their kids and daughters-in-law), eight beers on tap, and a red wine on tap, served in carafes. Menu is similar to the original.
For the first few weeks, Cotoletta will handle walk-ins only. If my stop Tuesday was any indication, the neighbors who popped in to ask about the opening have been waiting for this one. Hours are 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Weekend brunch is about a month away.
Brick & Brew | Malvern
The third location of the bar-restaurant (after Media and Havertown) is days old at 400 E. King St.
Cotoletta Fitler Square | Fitler Square
Green Eggs Cafe | Brewerytown
The bruncherie has set up shop at 2800 W. Girard Ave., its fifth location.
Stone House Grille | Kimberton
The former Station Bistro, a BYOB at 1300 Hares Hill Rd. (just outside the borough), opens under new owners on May 11.
Tea Do | University City
The Chinatown bubble-tea specialist, which also serves light Japanese fare, has opened a shop at 39th and Sansom Streets. It’s open late for the Penn crowd.
Dixie Picnic | Center City
The Southern-style sandwich shop, known for its box lunches, has closed at 1306 Chestnut St. (The space is destined to become a much-needed cellphone store.) Its Malvern location remains.
Kensington Quarters, 1310 Frankford Ave.; 5-7 p.m. Sunday-Friday.
To me, Fishtown's KQ is a bit of dinnertime splurge. Happy hour at the bar, though, has all the makings of a value, with $7 cocktails, a $5 beer of the day, a $6 red and white wine of the day, and Wacker's Bohemian in a can for $4.
The food is where the action is because of the sheer number of options: the celebrated KQ Burger, a $20 retail item, is marked down to $12. You can get a sausage for $7, a pasta special for $7, or a fried chicken, fried scrapple, or ham and pimento toast for $5. Trying to shed your winter bod? There’s a chopped salad for $5.
Cafe Baladi, 235 Lancaster Ave., Malvern, 856-272-6339
Imad Slim's journey has taken him from his native Lebanon to the Dominican Republic to … Lincoln Court Shopping Center in Malvern, where he's putting out homestyle Lebanese food in a simple, strip-mall setting lightly decorated with hookahs.
Particularly recommended are the pita wraps ($10.99 and $11.99) filled with shawarma (chicken, beef, or lamb), lightly griddled to a crunch, and served with house-made chips. The red platter shown here ($14.99) gives you beef or lamb shawarma, a healthy side of tabbouleh, and a choice of hummus or baba ghanoush. It’s served with pita chips.
Wash it down with a nonalcoholic Laziza.
Poe’s Sandwich Joint, 1429 Marlborough St.
There are hundreds of reasons to love the food in Fishtown. I’ll give you No. 420: the sandwiches at Poe's, a literal hole in the wall at Frankford Avenue and Marlborough Street, across from Suraya. “Poe” is marijuana activist N.A. Poe (officially Richard Tamaccio Jr.), and this takeout joint sells about a dozen sandwiches on Sarcone’s bread.
One of the secrets to the Birdman sandwich shown here is the build. The roll slurps up the oil from the chicken cutlet, which lands next to a healthy portion of good-quality crumbled sharp Provolone. Garlicky broccoli rabe is plopped on top, and then comes a shake of Parmesan. For $9.50, you’ve hit the jackpot — to put it, ahh, bluntly.
In case you missed it: Zahav was named the best restaurant in America at the James Beard Awards.
Reader: Have you been enjoying all the spring produce?
Craig LaBan: Yes! I always revel in the signs of spring on my plate – the soft-shell crabs, the favas and morels, the ramps and fiddlehead ferns. But this season, I have been especially cheering the 'chokes — artichokes, which peak from March through May.
Much closer to home, in New York City, I had a decadent artichoke lasagna at Leonti, the new Upper West Side restaurant from Adam Leonti, where the longtime former Vetri chef is serving elegant renditions of Northern Italian cucina that will be familiar to Vetri fans (ciao, tortellini pie!) In this dish, a single choke is dramatically layered between green noodles and rich béchamel, with its stem-end pointing skyward.
Back in Philly, meanwhile, I haven’t missed an artichoke beat. Wood-grilled chunks of baby artichokes came mounded atop a warm chickpea pancake called “farinata” (an Italian riff on the suddenly now-popular socca) at Fiore (757 S. Front St.), the new Italian spot in Queen Village that gets a full review this weekend. It was among the highlights.
At Cry Baby Pasta (627 S. Third St.), the hand-turned baby artichokes were crisped on the grill and then tumbled with sweet balsamic, herbs and shaved Parmesan. Across town at Res Ipsa (2218 Walnut St.), chef Michael Vincent Ferreri inventively turned artichokes into the base of a spring caponata — dicing the smokily charred hearts into sweet-and-sour agrodolce typically reserved for eggplant — then tucking them warm beneath a tuft of celery leaves and sweet peas woven into a dome with shaved rhubarb ribbons. There was a lot going on in this dish, from an herbal braise, to the salsa verde, and an oat milk vinaigrette zingy with the ash of garlic and shallots. But the finished result, also dotted with black olive caramel, was a masterful showcase for the warm artichokes hidden inside.
I’ve had lots of other fabulous artichoke dishes over the past year worth mentioning, including a lamb and artichoke pizza at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons (1355 N. Front St.), where the 'choke pizza currently features green garlic and spring onion crema; a beautiful red snapper with artichokes for a splurgey Friday lunch at Vetri Cucina (1312 Spruce St.); crispy fried artichokes at In Riva (4116 Ridge Ave.) in East Falls; and braised with duck leg-foie gras sausage at Helm Rittenhouse (1901 Chestnut St., second floor).
But true artichoke lovers also revel in getting their hands dirty plucking the leaves off a whole globe and stripping the flesh from the base with their teeth. And I loved diving into the soft folds of the steamy, garlicky whole artichoke at Scannicchio’s (2500 S. Broad St.), where the bread crumb-stuffed layers were also drizzled with pecorino sauce, true to classic Italian-American style. This was a homier version of my all-time favorite South Philly 'choke at Palizzi Social Club (1408 S. 12th St.), which I tried to visit recently, but in vain, because the line was ridiculously long. Another tidier rendition of that dish happened to be one of my favorites at Giuseppe & Sons (1523 Sansom St.) — a crock of tiny artichoke hearts that have been handily trimmed in house, simmered in lemon water, and then tossed with bread crumbs that toast in the salamander. “Now that’s a job!” says co-owner and chef Vince Termini Sr. But if I say so myself, that job was worth it.