Caffe Chicco

A few months ago, I tweeted that I was going to Nick’s Roast Beef for the first time. I got a tweet back from someone imploring me to try Cafe Chicco on South Broad Street, just blocks from Nick’s. I had never heard of Caffe Chicco and despite driving up Broad Street frequently, I couldn’t even picture the space. I tucked it away for a day that I had off from work as their weekend hours are limited. When I started my summer break and still hadn’t gotten there, I knew it was on my short list. In fact, I went there on my second day off!

Caffe Chicco is easy to miss amidst some of the other more prominent store fronts on South Broad Street between Snyder and Oregon.

With a simple glass sign and a small sandwich board advertising their specials (gravy fries!) it’s rather unassuming. On one of the hotter days in June, I dropped my husband at work and hustled back down to Caffe Chicco to try the famous roast beef sandwich. Once I saw the sandwich board, I was obviously planning on adding gravy fries to the order. Duh. I snagged a meter right out front with 32 minutes on it. Score!

I walked inside the small shop with just a few tables holding a woman studying and an older, Italian guy waiting for his order. I waited. And I waited some more. Finally, a younger teenager emerged from the back to take my order of gravy fries and a roast beef sandwich with sharp provolone on a round roll ($5.50 + $1 for sharp provolone.)

I sat at an empty two top and waited. Then I waited some more. When I was done, I waited a little more. In the meantime, two others came in and ordered roast beef sandwiches. Finally, a gentleman came out of the back and started composing the sandwiches. Like Nick’s Roast Beef, the roast beef sandwiches are made in front so you can watch the meat being sliced and dipped in the juicy gravy. As the man kept making sandwiches, I kept thinking ONE of them had to be for me. Finally, the girl walked up to me.

“Are you allergic to peanuts?” she asked.

“Uhhh, haha, no,” I responded quizzically. She turned to the guy in the back.

“See, everyone laughs at me when I ask,” Apparently, the potatoes are fried in peanut oil. Luckily, I’m not allergic and all could proceed. Then I waited a little more.

Finally, the girl let me know that my food was ready. I hopped in the car with just minutes to spare in my free 32-minute meter (that was a looong wait.) Luckily, I lived just a few blocks from Caffe Chicco and was able to rush home to rip into my lunch.

Look at that gooery cheese! Opting for a thicker cut than most places, Caffe Chicco’s sandwich was certainly good. The meat was warm and tender, although I could have used a bit more cheese and gravy.

Then I opened the gravy fries. Oooh, the gravy fries. I recently wrote about my love affair for this dish at Nick’s Roast Beef and was excited to try the competition.

What I got were limp fries, bland gravy and just a dash or two of shredded meat. I could taste (and enjoyed) the peanut oil that was used for the frying but they could have benefitted from being twice fried or something to get them just a little crispy. And the gravy was a complete let down. Let’s be honest, folks. The gravy makes or breaks a dish and while the fries were lackluster, the sandwich was good. I think it could have been great with a richer gravy. Guess I’ll stick to Nick’s, unless anyone can give me another suggestion?

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In Riva

It was a sunny Sunday and we had plans to meet my in-laws for brunch. I know it’s a long drive for them all the way into the city so I suggested a compromise. Push it back to lunch and we can meet at In Riva, just off Kelly Drive. My father-in-law, a pizza aficionado, was happy to oblige. What the cycling fanatic didn’t know was that In Riva is not only bike and runner friendly but a cycling theme throughout.

We decided that we would embrace the gorgeous day. My husband rode his bike to the restaurant, while I left a little early and went for a run along the drive. We met at In Riva at 11am where I gave my husband a tongue-lashing for opting to wear his cycling shorts to lunch. I was wearing my running pants though. Double standard? We stepped inside and admired the myriad framed cycling print that decorated the wall.   We were offered a seat on the patio overlooking the water and eagerly obliged.

We settled down and took a look at the menu. Surrounding the patio were old bicycles adorned with lights. I, however, was ogling the menu. There was an intriguing salumi and formaggi menu, including a wild boar cacciatorini, and a variety of cheeses. I liked the option of “the mix” where you can get two salumi and two formaggi for $16. However, we had our eyes on the pizza.  Between the four of us, we ordered a pizza each and one antipasto and a salad. My husband was yearning for some green veggies so he had the chopped salad and I just couldn’t leave without ordering the carciofi fritti (fried artichokes.) The waiter said he’d put in the antipasti and salad orders first so our food would be well-timed.

The salad came out first. With salami, provolone and ceci, it was a crisp and refreshing salad with hints of Italy.

The carciofi fritti arrived next, followed closely by my in-laws’ pizzas.

The fried artichokes were actually less flavorful than I had anticipated, although the lemony yogurt was the perfect balance.

Check out my father-in-law’s pepperoni pizza. He’s a traditionalist when it comes to pizza and I was glad they had an option for pepperoni. And check out the pepperoni–they certainly didn’t skimp on it!

I love the idea of perching the pizza atop the La Valle tomato can.

Unfortunately, the lag time between dishes was just a little too long and my in-laws were nearly done their pizzas by the time ours arrived. Have no fear, these pizzas were worth the wait!

Having decided to go with a red and a white pie, our red option was sausage and peppers with pepperonata and fennel.

Look at the beautifully charred crust. Perfect to munch on and wipe up the bits that spill onto the plate. The sausage was full-flavored with the perfect touch of fennel. The roasted peppers were the ideal partner to the tomato sauce with just a touch of mozzarella. Although it looks heavy, this was actually a light pizza, if there is such a thing.

When I saw a burrata pizza on the menu, it immediately beckoned. Then I kept reading and saw garlic spinach and balsamic onions. Balsamic onions? You had me at hello. The server explained that the pizza was actually cooked without the burrata, which would be added after it came out of the oven.

Scope that burrata! The spinach was garlicky, as promised, and the onions were more of a balsamic caramelized onion than I had anticipated (no complaints from me.) This was the perfect foil to the sausage and pepper pizza. I do believe we ordered well. In case you’re wondering, we did have leftovers. If you’re ordering apps, you could probably get a heavier app each and split one pizza. However, my loyal readers, if you know anything about me, you know I like trying as much as possible. And my motto is “we can always have leftovers!”

In Riva is a great option for lunch after an AM workout. The staff is friendly, the deck is relaxing and…SPANDEX ARE OK! As it turns out, my husband was NOT the only guy in there rocking his spandex. While it’s a little out of the way for me, I’d love to check them out for happy hour. They have a nice-looking Italian beer list and I can only imagine that deck on a cool summer evening.

l’Angolo

l’Angolo is one of those places akin to Mr. Martino’s that we have been going to for years. Before I even knew the charm of the neighborhood, my family and I celebrated special occasions at these two places. Since moving to the neighborhood, it has become a special place for my husband and me. In fact, we often give it top honors as our “favorite” restaurant in Philadelphia. Why? The food is simple and authentic with rich flavors and no pretension in service. Besides, it’s BYO so we can bring a bottle or two of our favorite wine.

When we got married a few years back, some of our favorite gifts were restaurants gift certificates, of which we received many. We used our l’Angolo one quickly but had $18 remaining and decided to tuck it away for later use. Fast forward three years and it was still hanging out in our gift card file. As we decided where to celebrate the end of my school year, we figured it had been too long since we’d eaten at l’Angolo, despite our proximity. We called on a steamy Tuesday afternoon and were able to get a reservation for that evening (don’t try that on the weekend, folks.)

We walked the eight blocks to the tiny restaurant on the corner of Porter and Rosewood (between Broad and 15th.) As we stepped in, we were greeted by the friendly staff, but both us were drawn to the open kitchen where they were sliding a pan of pappardelle onto a plate. Mmm… Although we were early for our reservation, they were more than able to accommodate us.

Something to be said about l’Angolo is that it is a place where anyone can feel at home. As we sat down, two burly, older men to our left were having a conversation about cell phones (“I don’t really check my text messages,” said the man who later discovered he had 59 unread messages.) In the back was a large party celebrating a birthday next to a very tattooed table of four. As we got ready to leave, a younger couple arrived who appeared to be on a first date. Most interesting, however, was the Italian couple next to us. Our waiter obviously knew them and the three babbled away in a thick regional accent–or so I say, I could barely translate a word or two of their conversation.

Onto the food. Why is it that it always takes me so long to get to the food?

l’Angolo starts each meal with a simple bread basket with a sun-dried tomato pesto. I could, of course, eat it by the spoonful and I may or may not have eaten about 3 slices of bread loaded with this tasty topping.

Some time ago, I heard ago l’Angolo’s grilled baby artichoke hearts (carciofi.) They’re not on the menu but if you ask, they’re happy to make them for you. Ever since, I’ve been ordering them. They have a fantastic char and are swimming in garlicky olive oil.

Since we’re both suckers for grilled food, we also got an order of the lemony calamari grigliati (grilled calamari.) Simple, fresh flavors with a great grill flavor.

Be sure to rescue some bread from that killer sun dried tomato so you’ll have a couple pieces left to sop up the juices from both of these dishes.

When the waiter shared the specials with us, two dishes jumped out. One was a homemade pappardelle with cinghiale (wild boar) ragu. This was what we saw the chef preparing when we walked in. My husband had his eyes on a veal chop that someone at the table behind us had ordered. However, I had a strange hankering for something simple and the spaghetti al pomodoro con ricotta salata jumped out at me. When we learned that we could do pastas in half orders, I cheered with delight! We opted for a half order of the pappardelle special, he got the veal chop special and I went with my gut.

The papparedelle came out and boy were we pleased.

The homemade noodles were chewy ribbons that corralled the ragu perfectly. The ragu, on the other hand, was rich and tender with a mellow tomatoey sauce. We quickly licked our bowl clean.

At this point, I was full. Yup, didn’t even get my entree yet and I was full. Of course our entrees arrived.

The spaghetti was tossed with oven roasted tomatoes and lots and lots of garlic, topped with a healthy shaving of ricotta salata.

You can’t see it in the picture but HELLO GARLIC. There must have been one full head of garlic in the spaghetti. MY KIND OF DISH, although I’m glad I wasn’t on a first date. OK, maybe I wasn’t completely full. Maybe I had just a lil room left.

Meanwhile, my husband was attacking this monster.

The chop was from Esposito’s and topped with an umami mixture of wild mushrooms in a sumptuous gravy, perched atop a mountain of extra buttery mashed potatoes. You pretty much can’t get any better than that. Oh yeah, add a side of broccoli rabe. The meat was a perfect medium rare and the best bite involved a little bit of everything. Ohh, that gravy…

We decided to forgo dessert (being as how I was full before we even hit the entrees,) although I kicked myself for not bringing one of the many bottles of homemade ‘cello in our freezer. Instead, we packed up our leftovers and walked off our lavish Italian meal (which came to under $100, including tip.) We both had our leftovers for breakfast the next day. They were just as good.

Shake Shack

I’m a local food blogger so here”s my obligatory Shake Shack post.

I love a good burger (maybe not as much as this guy, but believe me, I’m a fan.) When I heard that the much lauded Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s burger chain, was coming to Philly, I got a lil’ excited. When I heard it was coming to 20th and Sansom–walking distance from my job!!–the excitement increased monumentally.

When it finally opened on June 6th, twitter told me that the first people got in line at 9:15am. No way was I waiting in line for hours for anything, let alone a simple burger. The next day, however, a few of my co-workers and I decided to brave the line (in hopes it would be shorter) and check out this new attraction.

At around 11:30am, we walked the few short blocks from work and there was a line out the door and about halfway down the building. It seemed to be moving quickly, so we took our spots at the end of the line and were quickly followed by dozens of others.

Our wait in line was made much more pleasurable by the friendly Shack employee handing out free custard (so rich and creamy!) and menus and asking if we had any questions. It was obvious a lot of thought has been put in to customer service. After about 10-15 minutes outside, we made out way through the door and scoped the scene.

While the burger line was long, pro tip: there is a separate line for cold orders like custard, drinks, etc. So if you’re hoping to stop by for a shake, have no fear! Your wait will be significantly shorter.

I put in my order for a shack burger, cheese fries and the Abita root beer on draught, which came to about $12–a bit steep for a fast food lunch. I was then given a numbered beeper that would alert me when my food was ready. As we waited, we checked out the back seating area and watched the employees at work through the glass window. My co-worker kept trying to signal to one of the employees that he had something on his nose (a spot of custard, I do believe,) but he just kept working.

A highlight for me was this neat-o water fountain!

But I digress…after a short wait–ten minutes, tops, my beeper went off. I was SO excited. I went to the counter to accept my food. It comes in a neat Shake Shack brown bag. My only critique is that the to-go orders aren’t wrapped and our food was lukewarm once we got back to work, just a few blocks away.

It was pretty good though.

I bit into the burger first, of course. The Smoke Shack is a cheeseburger topped with Niman Ranch applewood smoked bacon, chopped cherry peppers and the signature Shake Sauce.

I loved the potato-esque bun that contained the simple patty. The cherry peppers added a nice tang, while the bacon–well, it was bacon. What else is there to say? The creaminess of the Shake Sauce (a chipotle-esque mayo) blended perfectly with the other components contained between the bun. The burger was decent. Despite the bit of gristle I got with my first bite, it had a nice char and the entire burger, bun, condiments and all really maintained the perfect balance. While it filled me up because I had cheese fries on the side, if I only got a burger next time, I would probably get a double.

I sipped my root beer along with my lunch. It was slightly sweeter and less carbonated than a typical soda, but certainly enjoyable. At $2.65 for a small (12 or 16 ounce) cup, it was a more than I would normally spend for a non-alcoholic drink. And I’m not even a soda drinker to begin with.

My favorite might have been the fries. Cheese fries are high on the list (along with macaroni and cheese) of things that I *must* order when I go places.

When I saw that they were crinkle-cut, I was a little bummed. Crinkle-cut is not my favorite fry “style” as they’re often pre-frozen, limp and flavorless. The Shake Shack proved me wrong though! These fries were crispy and extra salty (if you’re not a huge salt fan, it might be off-putting, but I loved it.) And the cheese dip on the side, a combo of cheddar and American, was nice and hearty. I hate when you pay extra for cheese fries and get a minuscule amount. Shake Shack doesn’t mess around. They also have this adorable little fork (pick? pitchfork?) thingy to help you pick up the fries and dip them in the sauce without dirtying your fingers.

How thoughtful!

I tried a couple bites of the Shack-cago dog topped with a variety of veg. It was decent but with all the fine hot dog spots that we have around the city, I’d stick to burgers at Shake Shack.

Bottom line, Shake Shack is a great new addition to the area. I’m surprised by the insane hype and think those who are comparing it to Village Whiskey are a little silly. But it fits its own niche and we welcome it to the neighborhood.

Vernick Food and Drink

It’s always so hard to decide what to do on your birthday. It’s extra hard when it’s been a tough year and you know that great food is one of the only things that can make you feel really good. We were originally planning on taking a day trip to New York, but decided we wanted more time than the day would allow and decided to create our own day trip in the area. We started the day at Green Eggs Cafe–always a sure shot for their massive club or quinoa porridge (it was my  birthday so I opted for the club, of course.) We had a nice meal, despite the throngs of folks celebrating Mother’s Day. Have I ever mentioned how AWESOME it is sharing my birthday with Mother’s Day? After Green Eggs, we made our way to Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey, after hearing that La Phemme Phoodie had celebrated her birthday there the previous day. On the way home, we stopped for some Pop’s Water Ice, which was a perfect snack on the warm and sunny day–and our first water ice of the season!

The previous day, when throwing around ideas of where to go, what to do and, most importantly, what to eat on my birthday, I asked twitter for early word on Vernick Food and Drink. There wasn’t much of a response, but I said what the hell, let’s check it out. With Chef/Owner Gregory Vernick’s impressive background (CIA grad, Jean-Georges vet,) there was quite a buzz before it even opened. I didn’t want to call during dinner service so I booked dinner for two on Opentable and added a comment that we would like to be seated at the kitchen counter, if possible.

We stopped at Dandelion for a pre-dinner drink and had quite the chatty bartender who assured us that we just had to try the food there and told us all about a dish that all the chefs in the city come to eat. Thanks, buddy. I knew I wanted a cocktail at Vernick, so I decided to get a beer. Dandelion is a British spot, so I figured I’d check out one of their ciders. I’ve been partial to Strongbow ever since we visited my brother who was studying abroad in London in 2004. I asked the bartender to recommend a cider based on that interest and he directed me towards the Samuel Smith’s Organic Apple Cider. At $15, it certainly wasn’t cheap, but I figured I could go all out, it was my birthday! His recommendation was accompanied by a glorious tale of how Shakespeare used to drink this cider. How could I NOT order it when Shakespeare used to drink it??

The beer was pretty good. $15 good? I’m not sure. But I was obviously pumped to be drinking SHAKESPEARE’S FAVE BEER! Meanwhile, my husband enjoyed their cask flight which was a steal at $8 for three 5 ounce pours.

As my husband and I were drinking and chatting, he picked up my bottle to examine the label, which clearly stated “Est. 1758.” Um, Shakespeare died in 1616 so there’s no way in hell he ever had even a sip of this cider. Dammit! Either way, we got a great laugh out of it.

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

We walked a few blocks to Vernick, which is in an old bookstore’s space on 20th and Walnut. When we entered, we saw Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen fame and pastry chef, Monica Glass hanging at the bar.  I gave my name to the hostess/owner Julie Vernick and she glanced down at her reservation book.

“Oh,” she said with delight. “You wanted to sit at the chef’s counter?” I was nervous that she’d say it was unavailable or we couldn’t sit there for whatever reason.”

“Right this way.” She was SO pleased that we wanted to sit there.

YES!

We were brought to the back room with a few tables and a small, 7-seat chef’s counter. As we sat down, the hard-working folks in the open kitchen made sure to greet us without interrupting their dance.

We began the evening with a cocktail. My husband stuck with a classic martini while I ordered off the drink menu. The Green Goddess, with absolut, cucumber water, lime, chartreuse and bubbles tasted of a cool cucumber. The perfect summer drink.
 Soon after we received our drinks, they brought out a complimentary taste of pea soup. The soup was fresh and tasted of spring. With the soup, Vernick does the perfect job of preparing your palate for what is to come–simple ingredients with big flavors.
Following the soup, we received another gratis bite–one of our favorite dishes of the evening. The parmesan custard is made by boiling down the parmesan rinds and adding egg, of course. It is reminiscent of an Italian street food. This custard had the sharp tang of a real parmiggiano, cut with the richness of the egg. It was, quite literally, the perfect bite.

Following the parmesan custard, we received our toasts. There are a variety of toasts, ranging from $6-14. The toppings change seasonally. We had fromage blanc with pickled ramps (swoon!) and beef tartare with freshly grated horseradish.

The pickled ramps provided a tangy complement to the creamy fromage blanc. The beef and horseradish provided a similar, but more shocking combination. Look at all that fresh ‘radish!

Next up was the house made mozzarella with rhubarb jam. It provided a refreshing bite. The mozzarella was a bit denser than I was accustomed to, but the rhubarb jam paired nicely with the creaminess of the cheese.

The only thing I didn’t love about this dish were the tiny dark rye croutons. While I liked the concept of an added crunch, they were just a little too hard.

A simple beet salad followed. It’s hard to mess up a beet salad, but it’s also hard to really nail it. I’ve had great beet salads at both Barbuzzo and Vernick lately.

It was just so refreshing. And the moliterno cheese added just a bit of sharp creaminess to the dish to cut the richness of the beets.

Throughout the evening, we chatted with the chefs during the down times. They were working hard, but there was an ease to their work–you could tell they were really enjoying themselves. About halfway through our meal, a single gentleman sat down at the end of the counter and we started chatting with him. As it turns out, he was the owner of Rotisseur and fed the Vernick Food and Drink family many, many meals as they were building and developing the restaurants.

Our next two dishes were on the heavier side–the pacing was spot-on throughout the evening, starting with the toasts and moving graduating to the larger dishes. Our first pasta was the only real miss of the night. A buckwheat pasta with broccoli rabe and lemon, it kind of just fell flat.
The next pasta, however, hit the nail on the head…hard. The potato ravioli with braised lamb was something I could keep eating and eating for days. The pillowy ravioli was filled with a simple potato mixture but the braised lamb was rich, meat and just plain delicious. I loved the crunchy bread crumbs sprinkled delicately atop the dish.
We ended up forgoing dessert, although I can only imagine that Pastry Chef Angela Ranalli, who splits her time between Vernick and Le Virtu, is pushing out some amazing food.

Although we went the first week, there were no major kinks. The food was one of the better meals I’ve had in the city for a long time. If I lived closer, I’d be a regular for the creative cocktails and toasts at the bar. I’m sure my wallet (and my husband) is pleased that I don’t.

LOS Burger Truck Breakfast Edition

I remember the first time I heard about Lucky Old Souls Burger Truck. I was pumped to hear of a food truck selling burgers with grass-fed Lancaster County beef and unique milkshake flavors like maple, black pepper. Yeah! Unfortunately, it took too long to get the opportunity to check them out.

Luckily, Headhouse Square opened back up a couple of weekends ago. Yay, Headhouse! I’ve written tons about our Sundays at Headhouse and it’s finally back in business for the season!

Previously, we’ve gotten Renaissance Sausages, but Lucky Old Souls Burger Truck has taken their spot for the first few weeks, at least. I follow LOS Burger Truck on twitter and have been mesmerized by exciting milkshakes and crazy interesting burgers. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned in the past, my lunchtime flexibility  is minimal due to my job. When we heard LOS Burger Truck would be at Headhouse, my husband and I gave an enthusiastic “hell yeah!”

On our way over to the truck, with the dog of course, we ran into some friends who had just ordered their food. They told us that we just had to order the breakfast burger. The breakfast burger consists of a whopping grass-fed beef patty, bacon, habanero cheddar and local blueberry jam, all topped with a fried egg. Oh yes. How could we resist? In an attempt not to be completely piggy, we opted to split the massive burger, contained in a buttery brioche bun. But then I added fries. Of course I did.

Check the fried egg nestled under the grilled bun.

Now check the cross section.

I think Guy Fieri would call this the money shot. For those of you wondering what’s up with the blueberry jam?? It worked. It totally worked.  The sweetness of the jam paired beautifully with the savory burger and the slight heat from the habanero cheddar. And the bacon. Well, bacon obviously makes everything better. And then there were tasty little morsels of fried egg–a little cooked, a little runny–just the way I like it. You have to taste it to try it, but these weird and slightly discombobulated ingredients just worked. LOS knows what they’re doing. So if you thought a maple and black pepper milkshake sounded weird, think again, my friend.

Oh, and the fries?

Handcut fries fried in 100% peanut oil with an optional (but let’s be clear here, there was no optional about it) garlic mayo dipping sauce…these bad boys were extra crunchy and just popped with flavor and saltiness. While the burger is the star, don’t leave without trying these guys.

Guacamole Mex-Grill

Having grown up in the neighborhood, West Philly remains one of my favorite places in the city. It’s amazing to see the transformation that has taken place outside of just the Baltimore Avenue corridor. Four Worlds Bakery, for example, on 46th and Woodland, has one of the best olive rosemary loaves I’ve ever tasted and it makes people walk south of Baltimore or even, gasp, south of Chester Avenue!

I was recently at my parents’ and wanted to grab a bite to eat with my husband and sister. My parents recommended this new little place that had just opened at 46th and Woodland called “Guacamole.” 46th and Woodland?? I thought. My parents said they hadn’t been there yet but had heard good things and I figured this could turn into a little blogging adventure. I was ready to hop into the car when my sister said “why don’t we just walk?” I guess I’m turning into a South Philly suburbanite. I never would have thought to walk to 46th and Woodland, which is all of 4 blocks away from my parents.

We strolled down a sun-kissed 47th street. West Philadelphia is just so perfect sometimes. When we arrived at Guacamole, its color stood out admidst the otherwise drab homes and businesses on the block.

We stepped inside the bright and cheery looking space and stepped up to the counter. Guacamole is small, with only about 15-20 seats. You order at the counter and they bring your food to the table.

My husband and I couldn’t decide which two burritos to get so we went with carne asada (beef) and al pastor (pork.) The Row Home Eats family has high standards for burritos as we order from our beloved Los Jalapenos 3-4 times a month. Every burrito we eat is always compared to “3 Jalas” as we call it for short. I also ordered a side of tortilla soup because, well, I wanted to try as much as possible. My sister opted for the simple chips and guacamole.

The guacamole came out first and I only had a small bite. It was decent–not the best, not the worst. I prefer mine a bit chunkier with less tang to the tongue.

I love how colorful the place is, from the outside facade to the paint choices and even the brightly colored baskets that the food is served in.

The soup came up next and boy was it a disappointment.

The thing that just makes a perfect tortilla soup is the broth and this was bland and underseasoned to the point of me not wanting to finish it, EVEN with the crispy tortilla strips as accompaniments.

I had high hopes for the burritos.

The burritos were decent-sized. Probably a bit smaller than “3 Jalas” or your local burrito chain. Good new is that the flavor that was missing in the soup was evident in the meat. Both the carne asada and al pastor were flavorful and sweet. My only complaint (and I think it’s legit, don’t think I was being piggy) is that I wish there was a bit more meat, less filling. My parents went to  Guacamole recently and raved about their dishes. If I went back, I think the way to go would be to order one of their platters that highlights the meat a little more. I’m ok with paying $8.50 for a burrito but I want that burrito to be meat forward. You can’t fault for me that!

If the owners spend some time tinkering with some of the flavors and ratios, this place could be a great quick lunch option for those of you who happen to find yourselves in the neighborhood. Oh, and if you do, make sure you swing by Four Worlds Bakery on your way home for a fresh soft pretzel. That’s what we did.

Square Peg

The first thing we noticed when we walked into Square Peg was the young woman standing awkwardly close to the door.

“Welcome,” she greeted us. As I prepared to tell her our name, she directed us to a counter over her left shoulder.

“You can check in with the hostess over there.” A little baffled as to what exactly her job was (greeter?) we made our way to the hostess counter to let them know that we had arrived a bit early for our 7pm reservation. We were prepared to grab a drink at the bar but there were plenty of tables and they walked us over to a small 2-top by the kitchen. Prime spot for watching all the food pass by!

Our waitress delivered our menus, took our water order (seems a bit ritzy for a place like this, no?) and returned a few minutes later with our ice water and an adorable glass bottle of water for the table. I love when restaurants do this. I’m a thirsty gal and hate to have an empty water glass, almost more than I hate to have an empty wine glass. As I admired the bottle, we perused the drink menu. Square Peg has adopted the “drink local” agenda with an impressive list of local to the U.S. spirits. Combined with an exciting cocktail menu–Frisky Whiskey!!–we had more than enough options. I was in a whiskey kind of mood and went with the Whiskey Cocktail (Jim Beam Rye, maraschino, combier liquer and an orange twist) while my husband opted for an Old Fashioned (Wild Turkey bourbon, agave nectar syrup, bitters, muddled cherries and orange.) We told our accommodating waitress that we wanted to enjoy our cocktails prior to ordering, as if we were grabbing a drink at the bar before dinner. She happily agreed and checked in on us occasionally but not too annoyingly.

The drinks were tangy and well-mixed.
I did notice that there was a slightly older crowd when we came in, and I assume it was the theater crowd. As the night progressed, however, the crowd grew noticeably younger. It will be interesting to see how this food-forward place caters to the sometimes tame pre-theater crowd while maintaining its integrity and mission.

As we enjoyed our drinks, we spent some time perusing the menu. Who am I kidding. I already knew what looked good to me thanks to the good old internet, but I still hadn’t made any final decisions. Although 2012 has marked the beginning of a quite successful healthy lifestyle kick, the weekends are our cheat times and we certainly made it count at Square Peg!

We ended up choosing the mac and cheese “grilled cheese” with drunken tomato soup and the tacos in a bag to start. My fabulous husband knows how difficult it is for me to leave a restaurant without ordering their version of mac and cheese and Square Peg’s certainly didn’t disappoint.

The buttery bread perfectly contained the cheesy mac such that it didn’t fall apart when you dipped it into the tangy tomato soup. Cheese, butter, carb, tomato–there’s pretty much no better combination.

The tacos in the bag were interesting. It came to the table and we looked at the dish.

We rotated it and looked again.

“What are we supposed to do?” we whispered to one another. I tugged gently at the top, wondering if they had made a slit that would allow us to open it. No dice. What the hell, I thought. And dumped it out.
I must note that Square Peg had the most perfectly shredded lettuce which is one of my most favorite fixins’ in the whole wide world. Shout out to the lowest man on the totem pole who probably shreds many, many heads of lettuce each night. The meat was tender and flavorful, each bite containing a little meat, a Frito and, of course, some shredded lettuce, provided the perfect mouthful. This is a big app, though, and maybe slightly heavy on the Fritos (not that anyone’s complaining.)

OK, by that time I was full. Too bad the entrees were on their way and I was EVEN MORE EXCITED for them. Ever since the moment I laid eyes on the menu, my eyes gravitated to one thing and one thing only: cheesesteak pot pie. For someone who didn’t eat meat for as long as I did, mention the word cheesesteak and I just swoon. Cheesesteak spring rolls? Yes, please. Cheesesteak pizza? Check. Cheesesteak pierogies? Well, you get the idea. Had ’em all, love ’em all. Not to mention, friends had been there a few days earlier and the pot pie came highly recommended.

How cute is that little spicy ketchup bottle alongside the dish? I also ordered a side of collards which were my best attempt at getting something healthy. The pot pie, as expected, was phenomenal. While I enjoyed the flaky topping, the real winner was under the crust. The meaty, rich, creamy, cheesy pot pie filling was just plain delightful. In fact, I couldn’t finish it and had the second half for lunch the next day. Score!

My husband got the other highly recommended dish on the menu, the BBQ brisket with brown butter gnocchi. When he ordered, the waitress told him that it was being served with pappardelle that night, which was fine with him. However, our friends said theirs was served with pappardelle as well. Is this a menu change that hasn’t been updated on the printed menu? A friend who went to the friends and family opening had that dish and thought it to be quite heavy. I wonder if they recognized that and subbed the gnocchi out.

While the menu said nothing about the roasted broccoli and marcona almonds, they were both pleasant additions to the dish. I’m a pasta girl and I thought this was buttery and salty without being overly done. My husband thought it was a touch heavy, although I didn’t get that–granted you’re talking to someone who just ate a cheesesteak pot pie so maybe my sense of “heaviness” is a bit skewed.

While we were finishing up our entrees, the General Manager, Michael Spector, came over to chat with us. What a nice guy. Michael owned the recently-closed Delicatessen on 7th and Chestnut and stepped in to manage Square Peg during its opening. Throughout our meal, I noticed Michael wandering the dining room, greeting people, asking about their meals and checking on every detail, down to the light dimmer. After the theater crowed (read: old) people left, the room got noticeably darker. His attention to detail and his concern for the restaurant’s patrons was evident in not just him but all the staff from the aforementioned greeter to all of the servers. It made us want to be there.

So we stayed.

It’s times like these in my relationship that remind me just why I married my husband. We were getting ready to leave when he asked if I wanted to split one of the “adult milkshakes.” I love this guy. We ended up with the “Root Beer Float” with White Tail Caramel Whiskey, Root liquer, vanilla vodka and chocolate.
I can’t remember the last time I had a milkshake but this certainly made up for it. It tasted exactly like a root beer float in milkshake form! All we needed was two straws.
I’m probably going to get in trouble for posting that.

We were a fan of Chef Matt Levin’s at Adsum and were excited for the opportunity to try his cooking again. While Levin absolutely proved his culinary skill during his time at Lacroix (hello, four bells!) Adsum and now Square Peg seem to be a divergence from that. He is cooking food that he wants to make and having fun with it. While it could be defined as stoner food, could be written off as kitsch, I challenge anyone who criticizes the concept to come on in and taste the food. While I wouldn’t mind a few lighter options, I think Square Peg has inched its way into the world of fun, creative and–most of all–damn tasty food. Although there wasn’t much of a bar scene while we were there, I think the great drinks list and unique menu offerings could make this a great Center City location for a beer (or a whiskey) and a bite.

Stateside

Green Eggs Cafe and I had a love/hate relationship from the start. I’ve discussed it elsewhere so I’ll leave it to that but let’s just say I was tentative upon hearing of the owner’s new venture, Stateside, just a few blocks from our house. All I knew was that Stateside’s aim was to focus on local ingredients in their small whiskey and small-plates bar overlooking the Passyunk Avenue fountain. I was interested in checking it out but only cautiously optimistic about this new addition to the “Avenue.”

A few weeks after they opened, I had heard some positive buzz about their food on Twitter and decided to finally check it out. It was a chilly Saturday night and I had just put duck legs in the oven. We planned on grabbing a martini and possibly a bite or two while the duck braised.

From the time we stepped through the door, we were treated to nothing but smiles and friendly staff members going above and beyond in order to please. As we settled into two recently vacated bar seats and ordered our martinis, our bartender informed us that all of their alcohol was local to the United States as well. What a novel concept. However, have no fear! The bartender, Jen, asked us what brand of booze we usually take in our martinis and patiently offered up other options. It was obvious then and at many repeat visits that she has a strong knowledge and command of her bar. Jen has also created their custom cocktail menu which contains unique (and seasonal) offering such as the recently added “hot buttered rye.”

Zach and I both opted for Death’s Door in our martinis–gin for him and vodka for me, of course. We perused the menu and chatted with Jen as she mixed our drinks. I, not unusually, wanted pretty much everything on their menu which is divided into meats, pickles, cheeses, small plates and large plates. We decided on a cheese and a small plate. We were immediately drawn to the Bayley Hazen Blue cheese with SMOKED BACON CARAMEL. I mean, I love blue cheese but add bacon AND caramel. I was sold. It was a little tougher to pick just one small plate but we ended up agreeing on the beer braised beef cheeks with cauliflower puree, radish and pickled mustard seeds.

Our cheese arrived first.

Look closely and you will see a little chunk of smoky bacon swimming in the caramel atop the cheese. Smoky, sweet, tangy, creamy…what a fantastic flavor collaboration. This is a great nibble for just $4 and bacon + caramel + blue cheese is really a winning combination. I may or may not have been tempted to lick my plate…

Next came the beef cheeks.

Don’t you just love their menu font, by the way? These beef cheeks are perhaps the favorite thing I’ve eaten at Stateside thus far. While the meat was good (and it was damn good and buttery soft,) it was the accompaniments that shone. The cauliflower puree was rich and creamy and I could only imagine what it was doing to my arteries while the pickled mustard seeds popped at just the right moments. The best bite was a piece of meat and a dollop of puree swirled in the braising liquid. This was a memorable dish.

Unfortunately, our braise beckoned and we begrudgingly walked home, happy to have found our perfect neighborhood gem for that night when we just want a well-mixed drink and tasty bite at the bar.

We went back the next weekend, of course. When we stepped through the door, the general manager, Anthony, greeted us with “good to see you again.” This was the neighbor-friendly service that was always lacking for me at Green Eggs. That visit and future ones gave us gems like the crunchy house made goat cheese.

We have also enjoyed charred broccolini (great sleeper dish) and duck sausage with sweet potato, sour cherry mustard and frisee.

Our friend, who wasn’t sure about the duck sausage, was an immediate convert. This dish even turned my husband into a sweet potato aficionado (for the moment, at least.)

More recently, we finally got a chance to try the crispy maple glazed pork belly over fried nora nora grits, gala apples and spiced cider jus.

Everything about this dish was phenomenal. Duh. I don’t have to tell you that though–just look at it. The pork belly followed the beef cheeks in highlighting and focusing on not just the main protein but every component of the dish.

As a special treat, Anthony brought out the rabbitt rillettes with pear preserves. This is something I never would have ordered but that’s what made it especially neat to taste.
This dish was subtle, yet robust. While the flavor was not overwhelming, it had an easy “eatability” to it. Another perfect bar snack to share with some of your favorite people. Besides, the jar they serve it in is just so darn cute.

Executive Chef, George Sabatino, is obviously having a blast pushing out fun and unique dishes comprised of all local ingredients. If you’re on twitter, check him out. He tweets out specials and other fun kitchen pics. Most recently, the bartender told us about their new seafood purveyor who offers only line caught fish. In fact, customers will soon be able to receive a code that will allow them to track the fisherman and boat that caught the dish they’re eating in this food-forward little restaurant in South Philadelphia. Talk about Stateside…

I cannot say enough good things about this place. From the front of the house to the back of the house, this restaurant aims to please and achieves on so, so many levels. I just hope, for our sake, that it doesn’t get too popular and will be able remain our neighborhood gem where we can always snag two seats at the bar. I won’t hold my breath though. If you haven’t eaten at Stateside, get there now. Seriously.

Pitruco Pizza

When my brother, Joe, was younger, he played tennis with this kid named Jonah. They were buddies. Unstoppable on the junior doubles circuit and together all the time, they truly were brothers. Although Jonah was a little taller and skinnier, they even looked alike, down to the same haircut and that fateful prom where they donned matching silver suits (inevitably from Suit Corner or another one of those “high-quality” men’s apparel stores on Market Street) and spray-died silver hair. I felt sorry for their dates, although the memory, captured by a single photograph, is certainly a family treasure.

While the boys went to different high schools and colleges, they remained close, occasionally entering a tournament together, although they were both occupied by life’s various ventures. After college, Joe spent time in the middle East while Jonah returned to Philadelphia and channeled his background in education and tennis expertise with a position as tennis pro at Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education. Ashe was where Joe and Jonah began their tennis journeys, so it was only fitting for Jonah to return. He was, not surprisingly, quite successful in his position. Years passed and Joe and Jonah maintained this friendship, often separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles. They had one of those friendships, you know how it is, where they could call one another up and pick up conversation like nothing had changed. Beyond their relationship, of course, the two families got to know one another quite well, celebrating Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays and other momentous events together.

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A few months ago, I was perusing the various local food media outlets and came across a piece about a new food truck, Pitruco Pizza, which would feature a wood burning pizza oven INSIDE the truck. Super cool, I thought. But something else caught my eye. As it turns out, tennis-playing Jonah was one of the partners. What?! Having known Jonah for years, I was intrigued but not at all surprised. With his go-getting nature and entrepreneurial spirit, this was completely aligned with the young man I remember best in his tennis whites. Over the next few days and weeks, I gathered more information about the truck and learned that they would be at a fundraiser for Arthur Ashe one weekend when my brother was home. Ironically, my friend Sean of the nano-brewery, Mellody Brewing, would be at the event as well. I was unable to attend but sent my brother and father off to the fundraiser, with instructions to report back. Midway through the event, I received a phone call from my father.

“Hey dad,” I answered.

“Hey Zoe, hold on.”

All of a sudden, I heard a new, yet familiar voice on the phone.

“Hey Zoe.” It was Sean of Mellody Brewing. Sigh. I am 30 years old and my father still embarrasses me. Yes, it’s true. My father had sought out Sean and, always the overachiever, chose to not simply introduce himself as my father but to call me and shove the phone in Sean’s face. Double sigh.

But this is about Pitruco. When Sean returned the phone to my father, I heard nothing but good things about the pizzas they had tried. In fact, they went to Love Park later that week to sample more pies. At this point, I was jealous. They had tried Pitruco twice and I was yet to get even a taste.

This quickly changed during the Chinatown Night Market. Pitruco was one of the many, many vendors and food trucks selling their goods on the packed street that October evening. Luckly, we ran into some friends (including the aforementioned Sean) who waited in line for pizza while we checked out the other trucks. We were lucky enough to try the traditional margherita and the salame, a red pie with soppressata, mozzarella and a touch of pecorino. Both pies were tasty, with the necessarily crispy crust. I especially loved the chewy soppressata on the salame. Because they were busy that evening, I could only wave hello to Jonah and the guys, while I had a brief chat with his mom, who was helping out for the evening.

After that taste, I knew I wanted more. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to leave work for an extended lunch hour and it took a few months for me to get another taste.

Last Saturday, we were at a 30th birthday celebration for two of our friends who live in Fishtown. As we left, around 11pm, Zach mentioned that Pitruco was stationed at Frankford and Girard, just minutes from the party. This is why I love my husband, folks. There was no conversation; we simply knew we were getting some pizza.

As we approached the intersection, we spied the truck sitting just across from Johnny Brenda’s. He pulled over and I hopped out to place our order. I was pleased to be greeted by my dear old friend, Jonah. I hemmed and hawed about our order, asking them what I should get, considering the two I had already tasted. They wanted me to get a better dish than what I had tried at the Night Market, because the pizza that night were not up to their high standards. We settled on the traditional margherita ($8) and a sausage ($8.50.) Jonah and I chatted as the guys prepped the pies for him to put into the hot oven.

I love the tiling.

As we caught up on our lives and chatted about business, Jonah deftly operated the pizza peel, sliding the dough towards the flames.

The sausage emerged first, loaded with meat and other earthy toppings.

The margherita followed soon thereafter, with a heat blistered crust that was prime for eating right there on the chilly street. Check out the steam!

Unfortunately, we did not get the pleasure to eat it immediately (and I do think this pizza is best eaten as soon as humanly possible after it is removed from the oven.) I sat the two pies on my lap for the seemingly interminable drive home. As soon as we stepped through the door, we ripped into them. The verdict? The sausage was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t realize it had mushrooms until I was eating it and they created this earthy flavor that balanced the savory sausage, with a hint of sweetness from the caramelized onions and a creamy bechamel. Oh my. And I wasn’t the only one who liked it. I begrudgingly  tore off a small taste of the sausage for my dog and she literally quivered in anticipation as I held it above her head.

The margherita was, of course, everything a margherita should be. A perfect ratio of sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil created a humble and simple pie, packed with full flavors in each bite. And the crust certainly did not disappoint. I loved chewing on the charred pieces throughout.

Many might say that I had to say something nice about my brother’s best friend, the tennis boy. If I had tried the pizza and didn’t like it, I certainly would have struggled with what to write (and may have opted not to write anything.) Luckily, I wasn’t faced with this challenge in the least.  This post literally wrote itself. I am beyond beyond happy to see the success of Pitruco Pizza and its partners, Jonah, Nathan and Eric who embarked on this journey with incredibly interesting and diverse backgrounds. Besides, Craig LaBan liked the pizza so who even cares what I have to say…