Craig LaBan's list

Posted: September 11, 2009

(1017 S. Ninth St. ) in the Italian Market, Dante's (4834 Lancaster Ave.) in West Philly - but there are some big fine-dining names set to stoke their smokers, too: Lacroix's former avant-garde guru, Matthew Levin, is promising "no-rules, punk-rock barbecue" at Rubb (4445 Main St., Manayunk) in a space beside the fire station (how appropriate); the crew behind Xochitl and Zahav, meanwhile, will ride ex-Marigold chef Erin O'Shea's inventive New South chops at Percy Street Barbecue (900 South St.), in the former Crescent City Space.

Just about everyone has been joining the upscale burger fray, from Stephen Starr (at his shake hut, SquareBurger in Franklin Square, Sixth and Race Streets) to promoter Tommy Up's overpromoted P.Y.T. (1050 N. Hancock St.)hipster patty lounge in the Piazza at Schmidts. Even Emeril Lagasse (at the Sands Bethlehem) and Bobby Flay (rumored for West Philly) have become possible contenders. But neither of those national names has the local cachet of homegrown star chef Jose Garces, whose urban saloon, Village Whiskey (118 S. 20th St.), recently began serving foie gras-topped burgers, duck-fat fries, and nearly 60 bourbons at 20th and Sansom.

The ubiquitous Starr is headlining the upscale pizza parade with a much-anticipated parlor called Stella Pizza (Second and Lombard) slated for October in the former Cosi on Head House Square. I'm equally excited, though, by the expansion of South Philly's Slice to a second location near Rittenhouse Square (1740 Sansom St.), where my vote for the city's best "everyday pizzeria" will finally give this neighborhood a quality pie it hasn't seen since Lombardi's disappeared from a nearby storefront years ago.

Midtown Village rising

Pizza is obviously also on the menu at Zavino (112 S. 13t St.), a pizzeria-wine bar from chef Steven Gonzalez, a Vetri and Brasserie Perrier alum who should be firing up his gas-and-wood oven in October at 13th and Sansom. But it's the overall buzz surrounding this long-percolating crossroads (a.k.a. Midtown Village) that's especially worth noting. Next door to Zavino, Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran are planning a November opening for Barbuzzo (110 S. 13th St.), a wood-fired small-plate Mediterranean that will have a bar to complement their considerable empire of Midtown BYOBs (Bindi, Lolita, Verde).

Nearby, at 13th and Waverly, Marc Vetri is preparing to give fans a third venue in January to savor his sought-after Italian fare with a casual 75-seater called Amís (412 S. 13th St.). Vetri describes it as a neighborhood-style Roman trattoria with big plates of square-cut pasta, handmade salumi, small plates, and salads, and says it will be more affordable than Vetri or Osteria. (Like that's hard.) Midtown is also slated to see a November opening for Sampan (122 S. 13th St.), the pan-Asian comfort-fooder that will mark the anticipated Philly return of TV celeb chef Michael Schulson (ex-Pod, Buddakan NYC, TLC's Ultimate Cake Off), whose Izakaya in the Borgata is set for cruise control while he mans the Philly stoves. There'll be no high-cost sushi here, though, says Schulson, who vows his "humble place" will keep checks around $35 a person.

New spaces,

familiar faces

Schulson isn't the only familiar talent making a city comeback. Guillermo Tellez, a Charlie Trotter and Striped Bass alum last at Chester County's Northbrook MarketPlace, will be the chef behind the globe-trotting menu at Square 1682, the dining room at Kimpton's posh new Hotel Palomar, at 17th and Sansom. Ex-Pod chef Hiroyuki "Zama" Tanaka is preparing the eponymous Zama (128 S. 19th St.), an authentic Japanese planned to replace the former Loie by late October. Chef Michael Stollenwerk of Bella Vista's Little Fish, meanwhile, is angling for a late-September splash across town at Fish (1708 Lombard St.), which may be the best hope yet to revive the languishing old Astral Plane space.

When it comes to sheer bounce-back expansion ambitions, though, few players show as much pre-recessionary chutzpah as chef Daniel Stern, who this year closed two restaurants - Rae and Gayle - in preparation for two more major projects. First up is MidAtlantic (3711 Market St.) for West Philly's Science Center, a "modern taproom" with a focus on beer and inspiration from the region's Pennsylvania Dutch roots (deconstructed pot pies? scrapple parfait? I can't wait). But Stern's space-shot will no doubt be R2L, a sprawling fine-dining perch on the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place. It's obviously too soon to know if the fine-dining "cocktail cuisine" will soar. But with its panoramic views, the city's highest public restaurant will at least assure, in this year of celebrating street food, that there will be some lofty dining, too.

   - Craig LaBan

Inquirer dining critic

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