It has been less than two weeks since Chris Scarduzio quit the city's steak-house rat race, pulling his Table 31 - once and for all - out of the searingly overheated competition.
It was the first entrant, last spring, in the new wave (tsunami?) of Center City steak houses. Now the words "steak house/bistro," are being explicitly chiseled off the latest menus.
Henceforth it is Table 31, period. But with a decided Italian accent. (We shall hear from Scarduzio in a moment as to why "Italian" is considered a less crowded field than "steak.")
The changes at the tailored, tri-level Comcast Center restaurant won't be subtle. The walls are getting a redder, sexier cast; the drapes are darkening. A hideaway bar is being installed upstairs, the better to accommodate regulars who were bereft when Scarduzio and partner Georges Perrier abruptly shuttered (French-accented) Brasserie Perrier on New Year's Eve.
On a menu once dominated by steaks, on which prices had already been trimmed, you could find last week an entire section devoted to pastas, all but one of them (including the house-made cavatelli with pancetta and tomato butter) $13 or less. And classic Italian veal and chicken dishes - veal fricassee, veal valdostano, diavola grilled chicken - outnumbered the shrinking inventory of prime steaks.
A town can stomach only so much red meat. And as Butcher & Singer, mammoth Del Frisco's, and recently the soaring Union Trust followed on Table 31's heels, putting 1,500 new steak-house seats in play and tons more beef on the street, it was only a matter of time (especially with the economy cratering) before someone blinked.
Or came to his senses.
Last week, Scarduzio sounded like a man happy to have the monkey (the steer?) off his back: "My customers were saying, 'Chris, why are you just putting steak on the plate?' " he said. " 'You've got so much more to offer.' People were saying I wasn't challenging myself."
The main-course correction couldn't have come too soon for Joe Wolf, the former restaurateur (he cofounded Striped Bass with Neil Stein) who oversees operations for the restaurants headed by Le Bec-Fin legend Perrier and Scarduzio.
"I've been telling him for three months not to compete with the steak houses," Wolf said. "We're going to revive the old Jimmy's Milan [the fabled haunt on 19th Street]; he had a great steak, but he never advertised it as a steak place. We're going to stand alone."
There is another reason, though, why Table 31 not only re-flagged, but is going Italian.
The other reason is that while the Table 31 team came to the conclusion that steak houses were crowding the lane in Center City, the pickings for upscale Italian (especially west of Broad) were decidedly slim. And, duh, Chris Scarduzio is true-blue Italian - stood on milk crates as a kid, cleaning mussels at Emilio's, his uncle's restaurant on Haverford Avenue in Overbrook, cooked at La Veranda, and for three formative years as sous chef at the Monte Carlo Living Room on South Street under Nunzio Patruno, the master of Italian classics.
So it is not Italian dishes reimagined that you notice at Table 31, nor the northern specialties, say, of a Marc Vetri. It is an appetizer of very homey eggplant parmesan in a cast-iron skillet. And a true-to-type Caesar salad, lemony and alive, with unapologetic white anchovy. And tender house-made gnocchi with tangy sun-dried tomato, roasted cauliflower, and a restrained gorgonzola sauce.
It is the sort of straight-ahead veal fricassee ($25) that you always hope for in South Philly, but rarely get. And a side of broccoli rabe so fine that I went back the next day and asked Scarduzio to show me how he made it: The trick is covering it as it sautes, and adding hits of extra extra-virgin olive oil as it cooks.
By and by, we shall see whether this has been a smart strategic retreat for Table 31. Or whether the appetite for Italian in Center City is just as sated as it is, well, for slabs of steak.
But I did notice with some delight that on the list of Italianized cocktails there was a rarely seen favorite of mine, the classic (gin-Campari-red vermouth) negroni.
I don't know if was an omen. But at Table 31 they made mine beautifully. At Union Trust I first had to explain it, and then send it back.
1701 JFK Blvd.
Watch chef Chris Scarduzio prepare broccoli rabe at www.philly.comEndText