Few people remember South Philly BYOB Meze, unless they ate there during Konstantinos Pitsillides’s short tenure as chef in 2006. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan lavished praise on him, calling his straightforward Greek fare “some of the most exciting new flavors” in South Philadelphia. But Meze wasn’t Pitsillides’s restaurant, and the owner-chef relationship was fraught with disagreements. Pitsillides left, and Meze closed.
Feeling nostalgic for the people and flavors of home, Pitsillides moved his family back to Limassol, a coastal town on the island of Cyprus, with plans to launch his own restaurant. But the traditional food culture he remembered from his childhood had eroded. He was shocked to find his countrymen even more enamored of McDonald’s than the Americans he had left behind. After just seven months, he headed back to Philly.
This spring, Pitsillides, 39, opened Kanella (Greek for “cinnamon”) on the corner of 10th and Spruce. The restaurant is a refreshing change from the grape leaves and iceberg-feta salads that have passed for Greek fare until now. The BYOB is welcoming, with whitewashed walls, exposed brick and unvarnished wood. Tables are packed into a small room that gets loud as a mishmash of neighbors and food enthusiasts fills up every seat. The drop ceiling is the only detail that doesn’t jibe with the room’s easy elegance.
The food is stripped down, without any fussy sauces or needless garnishes. Pitsillides’s best fish preparations, like a recent pompano, are stuffed with lemon and herbs, spritzed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and grilled whole. A leg of free-range rabbit is seared in lard and braised before it’s bathed in a light wine sauce and plated with long-grain rice pilaf and a dollop of Pitsillides’s rich homemade yogurt. A roasted bell pepper is lightly packed with feta, olives, mint and tomatoes and served with rice and lentil stew.
Only occasionally is this rusticity a drawback. The keftedes, succulent pork and veal meatballs, come with a messy pile of unwieldy leaves and herbs; the tender braised octopus and grilled halloumi appetizers are both served over salads with sharp chunks of raw onion. But the infractions are minor at this reasonable price point (around $40 for three courses).
Pitsillides is omnipresent in the restaurant, casting his intense gaze over the dining room. Some diners swoon for his piercing gray eyes, olive complexion and trim build. Others moon for his freshly baked bread and hand-crafted tahini. But whatever the reason for his fans’ adoration, all food lovers should rejoice that Pitsillides came back with a restaurant all his own.