The Revisit: Il Pittore

Where does Chris Painter's white-tablecloth Italian restaurant fit in?

Pasta at Il Pittore | Photo courtesy of Starr Restaurants

Pasta at Il Pittore | Photo courtesy of Starr Restaurants

For all of Philadelphia’s culinary diversity — and from Bustleton Avenue’s new Moldovan spot to Indonesian fare in Point Breeze, we at Foobooz are big believers — this is still a city where Italian restaurants rule.

In terms of sheer variety, they’re our Great Barrier Reef. They run from Marc Vetri’s flagship Northern Italian temple (Vetri) to his urban Italian gastropub (Alla Spina); from Le Virtu’s pasta smorgasbord to the citywide rebirth of pizza, from Modo Mio’s gut-busting turista menu to the wiseguy-haunted tables of The Saloon; from old-style red-gravy (Villa di Roma et al.) to new-style red gravy (Little Nonna’s), and, well, this sentence could go another 100 words before we even got to places as different as Osteria, La Viola, and Monsu. And lately we’ve been getting  even more: Vetri’s Lo Spiedo, Joe Cicala’s Brigantessa, Luke Palladino’s eponymous project on East Passyunk…

Whatever occasion you can think of, whatever regional specialty you desire, whatever amount of money you want to spend, Philadelphia has an Italian restaurant for that.

And one I’ve wondered about ever since first reviewing it, in January 2012, is Il Pittore.

Chris Painter, who’d long been Stephen Starr’s culinary director, was courting risk with this white-tablecloth venture. As a chef, he pushed back against the prevailing pasta fashion that prized softness above all else. As a business partner, he set his prices in tune with a gold rush, not a recession that had just wiped out 35 percent of the median American household’s wealth. I thought the food and service were terrific, but wondered what niche the restaurant would end up occupying in such a crowded landscape.

So recently I went back. And I’ll give Il Pittore this much: it’s consistent.

Almost three years had passed since my last meal in this handsome bi-level space, where potted plants dangle lushly from the edges of broad skylights, but it might as well have been three days. The slow-cooked suckling pig, whose meat all but melted off a crackling rectangle of deeply burnished skin, had to be the best baby animal I’ve tasted since the last time I had the exact same entree here — when it also came with pear mostarda and slightly tangy kale. Equally familiar was a bowl of house-extruded fusilli dressed lightly with crab and olives and a sprightly tomato sauce. As soon as I bit down into the just-chewy pasta corkscrews, I remembered why I found Painter’s emphasis on al dente compelling the first time around.

His emphasis on savory flavors over sweet ones came through in two other dishes. The first, a nightly special, was a sort of ridged cavatelli whose hollows were darkened with a very meaty boar ragu. The second featured medallions of Nebbiolo-braised short ribs heavily perfumed with speck. It was like plummeting into a black hole of wanton carnivorousness. Thank god for the pickled cherry tomatoes that came alongside: juicy starbursts to remind me that the universe wasn’t collapsing into a singularity of buttery flesh.

Not that pricey meat is all Il Pittore offers. It also offers pricey cheese, pricey wine, and what is surely the priciest molehill of brassica leaves in town. I mean, $13 for a plummy pot of baked ricotta is one thing — and maybe even a good thing for a foursome (I wish our server had steered me and my date toward something less filling). But $16 for two or three lollipop kale sprouts — a new cross between Russian kale and Brussels sprouts — with a diminutive dollop of roasted pepper and a poached egg?

That was too rich for the young couple to my right, who made me wince with sympathy as they deliberated on a path toward a check they could afford. Il Pittore wasn’t made for them. It was made for the sixsome to my left, who made me gape in incomprehension as they blazed their way to what was surely a four-digit wine bill.

To some degree, you get what you pay for — including extra-attentive service that coaxes you into getting more. We could have gotten away for less than the $300 we spent — especially considering how generous our entrée portions were. But even if the menu didn’t encourage ordering three courses before dessert — primi, pasta, secondi — our waiter was there to make sure we considered adding a contorni to the tally. Thank god we didn’t. Our stomachs would have gone Vesuvius.

So where does Il Pittore fit into Philadelphia’s Great Barrier Reef of Italian restaurants? Right up near the top, in that skinny space between Vetri and Osteria perhaps, whether you judge it by the cooking or the price tag. It’s a little too high on the food chain for me, but that’s the thing about Italian food in Philly: there seems to be no niche too narrow for a restaurant to thrive in.

Il Pittore [Foobooz]