The Stupid Joy of Simple Things: Clarkville Reviewed

Every once in a while, you find the perfect restaurant in the perfect place on the perfect day. In University City, Clarkville is usually that restaurant.

Photo by Emily Teel

Photo by Emily Teel

The thing that matters most about Clarkville is where it lives. It’s a pizza restaurant with good beer, a single solid pasta, and a short, tight menu of things that aren’t pizza—things that aren’t always great, but feel like pleasant surprises anyway when you stumble across them on the menu. But that’s just what it does. In some places, the restaurants make the neighborhood—Manayunk, Fishtown, Walnut Street during Le Bec Fin’s first youth. In others, the neighborhood shapes the restaurants. Clarkville? Absolutely the latter.


4301 Baltimore Avenue, University City



SNAP JUDGMENT: Good pizza, cold beer and fried chicken? Yeah, this is why a trip to Clarkville is dangerous if you’re not local. Because you’ll start thinking that maybe you should be.

RECOMMENDED: Fried chicken ($15) for everyone, and then extra fried chicken for later.

And while owners Brendan Hartranft, Leigh Maida and Brendan Kelly could have fought against the gravity of bright light, green spaces, and streets with houses packed shoulder to shoulder like pickets in a fence—while they could have turned the old Best House Pizza into some kind of wine bar (which might have worked) or hipster cocktail bar (which probably wouldn’t have) or artsy, cold temple of foams and tweezered garnishes (which would have failed so fast it would be easier to just burn it down on opening night)—they didn’t. They surrendered to address and space and surroundings and built a restaurant so ideally in tune with the needs and desires of the neighbors that if they hadn’t built Clarkville, I’m pretty sure Clarkville would have just grown there organically, sprouting like a magic beanstalk that bloomed with pizzas and fried chicken and sweating pints of Neshaminy Creek Jawn.

The place—right on the corner of 43rd and Baltimore, right across from Clark Park, right in the flow of traffic and the UCity day-to-day—is open and airy and bright. It feels less polished than it actually is (it’s designed almost like a poor chef’s first restaurant, not like a successful restaurant group’s fifth or sixth), with a nest of bulbs hanging from the ceiling and bright red cords snaking up to exposed outlets. The floors are warm wood, deliberately scuffed, and there are rainbow-colored checkerboards on the walls for color, a big rabbit head painted between the windows, chalkboards everywhere, and Lou Reed on the radio. The view from the main windows is of Clark Park, which itself is a kind of aspirational park. You see it and you kinda want to live in the neighborhood, to have it always close and available to you. In the same way, Clarkville is an aspirational restaurant. You eat there and you wish you lived around the corner. Even when things aren’t perfect, you wish it was your neighborhood place—not because you don’t care about the mistakes, or the dishes that don’t quite come together as well in actuality as they do on paper, but because if Clarkville were closer, if it were the place you went to with your wife on a Tuesday night after work just for a snack and a quick beer, the mistakes would be easier to forgive. They wouldn’t nag at you quite the same way.

On a beautiful (almost) spring afternoon, I ate a potato pizza that sounded brilliant—Yukon Gold potatoes off the mandolin, shaved wisp-thin and laid on a pie that had sour cream instead of sauce, bright green blobs of scallion-pine nut pesto, astringent and sour, and sliced ham. But what I forget (all the damn time) is that I’ve disliked more potato pizzas than I’ve actually enjoyed, and while this one wasn’t bad (chef Justin Bennett uses a dough infused with pilsner malt that is just excellent, crisp and soft at the same time, risen but not puffy), neither was it the greatest thing ever. The potatoes hadn’t been in the heat long enough to soften and tended to pull off whole, and the saltiness of the ham got lost under the competing sourness of the pesto and the sour cream.

The elemental construction of the Sal’s Famous pie (just mozzarella, tomato sauce and pecorino) worked, though, playing to Clarkville’s pizza-specific strengths (excellent crust, solid ingredients, no fucking around), and the pork pie, with spicy guanciale sauce, pickled peppadews, ricotta and sea salt, had some real heat and would pair perfectly with any warm night and any cold beer. But the pizza alone? Not the draw.

There’s a picnic board that’s kind of a rotating plate of meats and cheeses, pickled shrimp, terrines, tiny sandwiches and other little snacks from the kitchen, but everyone has one of those these days, right? The spicy pork ragu isn’t actually spicy at all, but is a decent bowl of noodles, covered with a pleasantly thick and chunky red sauce that carries its piggishness proudly. There’s a handmade mozzarella with grilled bread and olive oil; pimento cheese with pickles; a plate of fried chicken thighs with dill pickles, a little salad and some pickled onion ranch sauce that’s a stripped-down throwback to Leigh and Brendan’s days at Resurrection Ale House, when the fried chicken there was called some of the best in the country.

And yeah, the fried chicken is great—crisp and steaming, juicy all the way to the bone, with a perfect, crackling skin that’s hard to get just right even if you’ve been doing it, on and off, for years. But the beautiful gold of the skin, the crack of it, burning my fingers as I pulled it apart, and the cooling bite of the sauce? None of that was what I liked best about Clarkville, either.

clarkville upstairs emily teel 400

The first floor at Clarkville | Photo by Emily Teel

What I remember is sitting there in a corner booth, leaning back into a sunbeam with chicken grease on my fingers and an Allagash White close at hand. I remember smiling because it was just a good moment. What I liked most about Clarkville was the stupid joy of simple things. Eating fried chicken on a spring afternoon. Running the crust of a slice through the thick ragu in the bottom of the bowl and licking a smear of it off my knuckles while Lou Reed sang and the servers moved through a crowd of just-arrived families from the park. I liked the boy at the table next to mine trying to share his Cheerios and raisins with me while his mom breathed out a happy sigh and decided that yeah, she would have a beer with her lunch after all. The hand-pulled mozzarella was squeaky-stiff, chewy and cold from the lowboy, without any of the creaminess that a house-made mozzarella should have, but I was happy anyway, tearing off pieces of charred bread and dabbing up the olive oil and sea salt on the plate as the afternoon bled away into evening and having another beer seemed like the smartest idea I’d ever had.

It’s a happy place, Clarkville. An easy place—comfortable in its skin and conceptual space. There are better pizzas to be found in Philly, more challenging menus, more rigorously authentic pastas and Instagramable salads. But none of them are right here, right now, are they? In this open and comfortable room, across from the park, on a sunny afternoon in University City. Happy hour is coming up—a family happy hour, with beer specials for the grown-ups and cheap pizzas for the kids, and I love that, too. The inclusiveness of it. The comfort. It’s enough that, as I walk out with my leftover chicken and a couple extra slices to eat in the car, I look around and wonder if there are any apartments available. Something with good light and a view of the trees. With central air and a good kitchen.

And, of course, not too far from Clarkville.

2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood.

Clarkville [Foobooz]