Restaurant Review: Chiarella’s, Revisited

The decidedly old-school Chiarella’s on East Passyunk recently survived a visit from Gordon Ramsay and his Kitchen Nightmares crew. How does that sort of thing change a place?

 

In the magazine, this month’s lead review addresses a question that sounds like a no-brainer: Why would you want to expose yourself to the scrutiny of Tom Colicchio and a million couch-potato gourmands as a contestant on Top Chef? The answer is perhaps a little more involved than you’d suspect—Kevin Sbraga remembers the experience rather the way Odysseus recalled his journey past Scylla and Charybdis—but ultimately obvious: How else was the guy going to bag $125,000 and get his name on a restaurant marquee?

So far, so good. But Top Chef is Top Chef. Since you’re in front of so many eyeballs, showcasing the very best you’ve got, even if you lose, you might win. The real question, when it comes to modern-day gastro-tainment, is why anyone, anywhere, ever—in any state of mind short of one that qualifies you as legally incompetent to bear responsibility for your actions—would volunteer to be Gordon Ramsay’s whipping boy on Kitchen Nightmares.

Now, maybe I’ve just answered my own query. There are some liberties we’ll compromise on in this country, but the right to act like a court-certifiable moron on national television isn’t one of them. But still, restaurant owners are, at the end of the day, businesspeople. Which was why I’d always assumed that each one had the same reason for consenting to be Ramsay’s piñata on this Fox-ified melee of family discord, emotional collapse and (coming a distant third) cooking advice: desperation.

So I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t ready for the answer Thomas Defino offered as his motivation for serving up Chiarella’s—his aging red-gravy outpost in South Philly—as a location for one of Ramsay’s nightmares back in November (to air in January).

“I thought it would be good for Passyunk Avenue.”

Yep, Passyunk Avenue. That criminally unsung corridor whose publicity tribulations have lately ranged from being chosen to host the Food Trust’s debut night market, to Food & Wine’s spread on Green Aisle Grocery, to the New York Times branding it a locus of “hipster-ready cafes and boutiques,” to, oh, never mind: What would really be good for Passyunk is to get Gordon Ramsay up in there, right?

The truth, of course—as Ramsay told him—is that what’s been good for Passyunk Avenue has been a challenge for old-school places like Chiarella’s. After all, hipsters may have an unquenchable thirst for vintage t-shirts, but their appetite for ironic nostalgia stops well short of the dinner table. (At least for now. Given that some indie rockers have lately put out new material on cassette tapes, who knows where the next frontier will be?)

As Defino puts it when speaking about Ramsay’s attempted makeover: “A lot of hipsters like his food. But my people like hearty Italian meals. They’re not looking to eat chicken liver.”

Chicken liver is, in fact, now on the menu at Chiarella’s—smeared on crostini with capers and bacon. But that’s about as much of a sop to contemporary tastes as the restaurant has made. A meal prepared a few weeks into the restaurant’s post-Ramsay rebirth showed it to be less an extreme makeover than a tweak here and a tweak there.

The menu, to be sure, is better attuned to the times—at least in its length, which has been trimmed by a good three-quarters. The exhaustive listing of veal done a dozen ways, pork in a dozen similar ones, etc., has been replaced with a more streamlined range of offerings. There’s also at least one addition that qualifies as trendy: diminutive arancini that were flawlessly executed, even if the dots of smoked paprika aioli were too small to register.

But Chiarella’s remains its red-sauce self. There’s eggplant parmesan served atop a mound of spaghetti, a dish primarily recommended by its well-balanced tomato sauce (a little thicker and less sweet than it used to be) and its giant size. Lasagna with ricotta, mascarpone, béchamel and Bolognese sandwiched between thick layers of pasta wasn’t exactly delicate, but then neither is most hearty fare. Our three-year-old liked it, and our waiter liked our three-year-old—which is probably the more important thing in an avowed family restaurant like Chiarella’s. In fact, the casual servers were more attentive to our table’s comfort—or, to come closer to the point, they seemed more genuine about it—than those at anywhere else I’ve been in quite a while.

Does that make up for the fact that the bread used for the crostini has the depressingly uniform crumb of an airplane baguette, and when toasted crumbles less into chunks than into powder? Apples and oranges, some folks might say. Does it balance the ledger thrown off-kilter by a filet of bronzino practically carpet-bombed with mustard? That depends on how much you like the actual flavor of bronzino, perhaps. (I hate to see it smothered.) Or how about “creamy” polenta that arrives parched? Well, disappointments have a way of adding up—even if they’re partway redeemed by a classic, straight-ahead, altogether splendid tiramisu.

Just the same, Ramsay may well have done the restaurant a service. Though I won’t be rushing back to Chiarella’s for seconds, neither would I rate dinner a nightmare by any stretch of the word. (Though the bathroom, where the dust-caked underbelly of an exhaust fan poked through a hole in the acoustical tile seemingly cut with a nail file, and the sink faucet barely achieved a trickle, was genuinely spooky.) The food is fair—and fairly priced. The gravy was well made. Nothing was criminally overcooked or undercooked. Dishes were seasoned properly, and there was no watery spinach. (Which, during taping, was a big deal, though Defino suspects that a camera-hungry customer simply upended a glass on the greens in a bid for fifteen seconds of fame.) One advantage of being on Kitchen Nightmares, it would seem, is that nothing else lowers customers’ expectations so radically—and therefore makes them easier to surpass.

There may be one other upside, too.

Defino—who did not strike me at all as a fame-seeking moron when we chatted on the phone, but rather as a genuinely guileless man—told me he’d been in a “five-year depression” before Ramsay showed up. The taping was its own species of torture and elation, he allowed, and “there were a lot of tears early on.” But there was also laughter, and what felt to Defino like honest concern on the part of the notoriously pugnacious celebrity chef.

“He wanted to get me out of my rut,” Defino says. “He helped me as a person.”

Which was maybe the last answer I was expecting from someone who’d just survived a close encounter with Ramsay. But it’s also one I hope will hold true even after Defino watches the Chiarella’s episode on TV.

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