“We want to continue for Fork to be a neighborhood restaurant, but also a destination,” Kulp says.
In Wash West, Philly area native Lawler is enjoying the simplicity of running a BYO, given that he and his wife, Colleen, are the parents of 3-year-old twins. The space’s small footprint — there’s no room for a walk-in refrigerator — helps Lawler stay true to his locavore mantra. The menu, which changes several times a week, almost always features his signature beet “steak” and also might include parsnip and Cameo apple soup, mushroom risotto or Hudson Valley dorade with onions, potato, parsnip and cardamom.
“It’s really seasonal and vegetable-driven,” he says. “I have farmers bring me whatever they’re excited about, and I base the menu on that.”
The goal for Vernick, whose handsome bi-level restaurant opens up to busy Walnut Street, was to create a high-energy destination that would work for casual meals at the bar and date nights in the more intimate dining room.
The sprawling menu ranges from toasts (with such toppings as creamy fromage blanc or peas and bacon) to small and big plates that are meant to be shared (charred Brussels sprouts salad, barbecue beef short rib, seafood and shellfish roast), supplemented by a raw section of oysters and seviche-like preparations of fish and sea creatures.
“I want to be an institution in Philadelphia,” Vernick says.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn transplant Fette Sau is one of the spots helping to transform the working-class neighborhood of Fishtown into a hipster destination, complete with warehouse-residential conversions and trendy restaurants, bars and shops. The brisket, pork belly and ribs are difficult to resist, and the hearty food makes for a good companion to a night at Frankford Hall, Starr’s indoor-outdoor beer garden next door.
Of course, sometimes all you really want is a nice dish of pasta. Cicala certainly offers that at Le Virtu — the porchetta agnolotti in a sage, butter and black truffle sauce is one of the current stars — but also has the freedom to fully explore Abruzzo cuisine without having to dumb it down with more routine Italian fare. Le Virtu is known for its more than two dozen kinds of house-made salumi, as well as for special dinners, such as a popular event celebrating offal. Although roasted chicken is on the menu, it’s outsold 3 to 1 by the rabbit in a braised lentil and chestnut ragu.
To Cicala, who goes back to Italy several times a year to look for recipes, choosing Philly came down to location. “Over the past two years, more restaurants in my neighborhood have popped,” he says. “A lot of younger chefs are coming from around the country. The BYO scene is pretty huge, and we have killer amazing local products as far as produce, meats and dairy — all that stuff that comes from Lancaster County, Southern Jersey or Berks County.”
And what’s happened to the cheesesteak, the city’s best-known culinary export? It’s still out there, Cheez Whiz and all, perhaps waiting for one of these newcomers to reinvent it.
DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based journalist and the local dining writer for Gayot.com.