East Passyunk Avenue expands restaurant choices

Diners can eat outside at Cantina Los Caballitos.
Diners can eat outside at Cantina Los Caballitos. (PHOTOS: YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 11, 2012

BRAISED PORK belly with congee and sweet soy. Yellowfin tuna tartare layered with red curry, avocado and coconut broth. Squash flan adorned with brussels sprouts leaves, radish and spiced seeds. Rabbit rillette crowned with red plum, pistachio, black pepper gastrique and clover.

If you had to guess where you could nibble such haute dishes in Philly, you'd likely assume Rittenhouse Square. Maybe Old City. Or Society Hill. Chestnut Hill . . . Manayunk?

No, no, no, no and nope.

Those menu items, plus groceries and takeout fare that include curried fleur de sel, lemon thyme meringues, sugarplum sorbet, tiny madeleine cakes - not to mention delicate cappuccinos lovingly prepared with locally roasted beans - are up for grabs along East Passyunk Avenue.

You know the spot. When you were a kid, you probably went there for chicken parm, spaghetti and clams, pizza. Need more orientation? It's the same diagonal stretch a few blocks south of fellow bastions of culinary superiority Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks.

If it's been a while since you've walked along the avenue, stroll against traffic from the steak stands, past the Acme supermarket, and you'll notice a striking change: Between Dickinson and McKean, five vibrant blocks boast nearly three dozen remarkable dining destinations - a foodie density equal to if not greater than Rittenhouse or Old City.

Most of these places are less than 10 years old. Most are under 5. And the activity isn't over yet, as chefs continue to announce plans to open in the neighborhood.

Now. Think back again. It wasn't that long ago that you could count the sit-down eateries on one hand.

Click map above                                    OK, maybe one hand and a finger.

Francis Cratil Cretarola owns 5-year-old Le Virtu with wife Catherine Lee. When they moved to the neighborhood in the mid-'90s, Tre Scalini, Mamma Maria, Mr. Martino's and Marra's were pretty much the whole dining scene. The food, he said, was good. The outlook wasn't.

"Cathy and I have lived [near Passyunk Avenue] since '96," he said. "There was a place here and a place there, staples like Mr. Martino's that gave bones and character to the neighborhood. But there were lots of holes, too.

"The vitality, the energy was gone. People were under the impression that eventually everybody was going to move out to the suburbs," Cretarola said, "The neighbors were very pessimistic about the future."

But then Center City came back. By the turn of the century, people were looking for more affordable places to live. Cretarola realized his 'hood was poised for a turnaround when Realtors started slipping fliers under his door. The neighborhood had "momentum." That's when he opened Le Virtu.

The pioneers

Lynn Rinaldi, the chef-owner of Paradiso and Izumi, is a Passyunk native. She's also widely regarded as the avenue's preeminent pioneer. An alum of Annunciation and the former St. Cassias, Rinaldi was, in 2003, facing the end of her lease at the café at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. So, she started looking for another space.

Rinaldi looked in Northern Liberties. She looked in Queen Village. She looked in Fairmount. Then, to her surprise, she looked along the avenue.

Growing up in the '70s and '80s, Rinaldi remembered Passyunk as "more retail than restaurants, and it kind of went into decline." To her, it was home. It wasn't exactly . . . hot.

Change, however, seemed to be happening. In 1991, fellow neighborhood guy and then-state Sen. Vince Fumo formed the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that began buying up vacant or underused properties to turn into apartments, retail, offices and, if Rinaldi was willing, a restaurant or two.

Since Fumo's federal conviction for fraud and related charges in 2009, Citizens Alliance has been reorganized and renamed the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corp., under the direction of former developer Sam Sherman.

Back in 2003, the Citizens Alliance took Rinaldi on a tour of her old stomping ground, and when she arrived at a former furniture store at No. 1627, "I fell in love," said the chef.

The space would require an overhaul. She'd have to apply for a loan. She'd have to use all of her savings. And, she'd have to persuade a new set of diners to come out to dinner.

But Citizens Alliance would give her a break on the rent. And it felt right.

She signed the lease.

Friends and peers were split in their opinion of Rinaldi's plans. But folks living and working nearby couldn't have been happier. "They were really supportive," she said, "I had no resistance. People were just so happy that somebody was going to do something with the vacant property."

She opened for business in November 2004 with 65 seats, private dining space for 100, and a menu featuring rabbit ragu, braised tripe and California wines. Four years later, she and chef-husband Corey Baver opened Izumi, a modern sushi spot, about a half a block away.

Today, between the two places is a satellite location of famed Capogiro Gelato, cozy bistro Salt and Pepper, boutiquey Green Aisle Grocery, and Fond.

Fond, a tiny BYOB, opened in August 2009, and belongs to a trio of talented chefs who, like Cretarola, happened to live in the neighborhood, could afford the rent and figured, "we were young," said chef and co-owner Lee Styer. "We had nothing to lose."

Today, Fond fans wait a few weeks for a prime time weekend reservation.

Last fall, the BYOB's pastry chef, Jessie Prawlucki, opened her own spot, Belle Cakery, just north of Dickinson, where she bakes olive bread and makes dessert for the restaurant, sells wee tarts, heavenly cookies, select sorbets and espresso to passers-by, and takes orders for wedding cakes.

Next month, Fond plans to move to bigger digs along the avenue, a renovated place with more room for storage, food prep, and a small bar. They'll keep their old space, too, even though they haven't figured out what they'll do with it.

The red-gravy crowd

Chances are, Fond's new locations, just like fellow newcomers Stateside, Birra and Will, the avenue's latest raved-about little BYOB, will attract many diners from Center City, the suburbs, a healthy dose of new-to-the-neighborhood residents, but not all that many longtime neighbors. After all, that's who's been coming to Paradiso since it opened. Le Virtu, too.

Styer described his clientele as "a lot of people from the Main Line, Jersey, Rittenhouse Square, Center City - not necessarily traditionally South Philly people."

"We could not survive if we did not draw people from outside the Passyunk area," said Cretarola.

Not that every new place attracts out-of-neighborhood folk. Stogie Joe's, for example. A few years ago, the Leuzzi brothers, three Neumann grads, took over old Passyunk Tavern, a one-time pub, private social club and the former boxing gym of famed middleweight champ Joey Giardello, and gave it a new name, a bigger kitchen, extra dining space and a gentle renovation.

Today, the restaurant and bar functions as the neighborhood's Cheers, welcoming the same old-timers who've gathered there on Friday mornings for decades, attracting suburbanites who've heard about their to-die-for stromboli, drawing crowds for live music and block parties, bringing in "new neighbors, 22-year-old kids from South Philly, old ladies," said chef and co-owner Kristian Leuzzi. "It's very diverse."

Such clientele, Will's chef-owner Christopher Kearse pointed out, like to hang out but are mostly there to dine - not drink."It's not a bar scene, not like Northern Liberties," he said.

The predominance of restaurants is entirely intentional, said PARC's Sherman. "We don't want it to turn into what happened on Main Street in Manayunk or on South Street, where a bunch of bars pretended to be restaurants, and suddenly, it became a free-for-all."

Passyunk neighbors - especially those old-timers - have been especially wary of too many bars. Before obtaining their liquor licenses, both Le Virtu and Fond opened up their dining rooms to the community, offered snacks and wine, and invited the locals to ask questions and air concerns.

"I think that kind of engendered the idea that we were going to be neighborhood-friendly," said Cretarola.

At Fond's gathering, said Styer, "We explained we're not a biker bar, not a go-go . . . One or two people were negative, but customers and neighborhood people spoke up for us, stood up for what we're doing."

Where to park it?

Residents have complained about the lack of parking at dinnertime. A few weeks ago, PARC set up two valet parking stands - one at the Singing Fountain at 11th and Tasker, and one at the 1600 block of East Passyunk. A third will open this weekend in front of Le Virtu.

Patrons pay $8 if they dine at participating restaurants (so far, Mamma Maria, Birra, Fond, Da Vinci, Izumi, Stateside, Paradiso and Le Virtu); $15 if they eat or hang out elsewhere. Cars can be dropped off or retrieved at any of the three kiosks. Cars are parked in the SS. Neumann-Goretti Catholic High School lot.

It's a surreal scene, the suburbanites idling in their shiny vehicles, the twentysomethings lining up outside the bright orange Cantina Los Caballitos, the well-heeled groups peering at menus posted in bistro windows - and the guys hanging outside the hardware store, taking it all in.

Michele DeLuca's great-grandparents opened Marra's 85 years ago. She grew up on the avenue and, now that her four kids are old enough, works alongside husband Maurizio in the restaurant. She calls the change "a rebirth."

Rinaldi agreed, but went one step further. "What I had envisioned is exactly what's happening now."


Contact Lauren McCutcheon at mccutch@phillynews.com or 215-854-5991. Follow her on Twitter @LaMcCutch.

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