The backstory reads like a movie script: Young man grows up in food-obsessed Italian-American family, the sort that starts planning dinner during lunch. He works summers as a busboy at the Shore. Decides to make cooking his life. Spurns culinary school to learn the basics on the job. Moves to California, lands a position at a nationally known Napa Valley restaurant, works his way up to executive chef. Finally, after nine years on the opposite coast, he returns home to open a restaurant of his own with his pretty wife.
That’s how Joseph Scarpone, son of a Drexel Hill painting contractor, and his wife, Karey, came to be the proprietors of a distinctive, delightful contemporary Italian restaurant in Northern Liberties that they call Sovalo, merging the names of their six-year-old daughter, Sophia, and three-year-old son, Valentino.
They’ve lightened the mood at the former Pigalle, painting the ceiling gold and removing some of the heavy drapery, but keeping the two dining rooms cozy and neighborly. (Jeans are okay, and you can BYOB on Mondays, but keep that cell phone holstered, please.) Scarpone looked to photographs of Venice coffeehouses for inspiration, and also to the place that formed him as a chef: Tra Vigne, where he was mentored by founding chef Michael Chiarello, and where he met Karey, a Los Angeles native who worked in the dining room. At Tra Vigne, Scarpone learned to let seasonal produce shape his menus, and ultimately developed a personal cooking style that merges sophistication with simplicity.
Sovalo’s wine list, a showcase for small-production, quality-conscious California labels, gives it a particular niche among the many new, highly individual husband-and-wife-operated restaurants, most of which are BYOB. When Karey offers advice on wine and food matches, her frame of reference is personal as well as professional—many of the producers became friends of the Scarpones during Joseph’s West Coast sojourn.