Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts is studded with lackluster restaurants geared toward hungry theatergoers. They’re a captive audience, a steady stream of dollars that depends on location, not culinary achievement. During its tenure on Locust Street from 1988 to 2004, Girasole catered to the pre-theater crowd with curtain-time-friendly specials and attentive service to match. In the ’90s, it also brought in the locals with homemade pasta and then-trendy dishes like beef carpaccio. In March, the restaurant reopened in a shiny new space in the Symphony House, with gold banquettes and a hand-painted mural of its namesake, the sunflower. But the hodgepodge Italian menu and inconsistently executed dishes won’t draw Philadelphia’s most devoted diners.
[sidebar]You could do worse for your pre-show meal. Unlike its corporate neighbors, Girasole is a family affair. Angela Iovino, wife of co-owner Franco, is executive chef, and most of Girasole’s dishes have a homey soulfulness: Her light potato gnocchi in tomato sauce are as good as you’d expect from an Italian nonna. A plate of house-made sausage, broccoli rabe and cannellini beans is comforting, the rich meat softening the rabe’s bitter edge. A salad of sharp arugula topped with roasted beets and creamy burrata is satisfying, even if it feels like a pastiche of once-trendy ingredients that don’t necessarily fit together.
The dated menu would be forgivable if dishes were reliably executed. The frittura mista, a simple basket of fried shrimp, calamari and veggies, arrived limp and greasy, with overcooked seafood. Risotto is supposedly cooked to order, but the mushroom version I sampled lacked the dish’s essential creaminess. Even the restaurant’s signature carpaccio was a disappointment — the slices of beef are set on a heated plate, sapping the distinctive flavor and texture of what should be a raw dish.
Girasole’s new trademark should be its crudo menu, something that’s been a crowd-pleaser at the restaurant’s Atlantic City outpost. Tuna is paired with thyme, endive and balsamic vinegar to great effect; branzino works surprisingly well with mozzarella and mustard. The update is welcome, but if Girasole hopes to recapture its old fans and lure in new ones, this level of care and creativity must seep out to the rest of the menu.