We’ve Got to Stop Opening Italian Restaurants in Philly
Italian food has somehow become Philly’s It cuisine again. And that’s maybe not so great.
In 2013, I worked at a restaurant in Philly called Fitler Dining Room, led by an ambitious chef named Rob Marzinsky. He did things like gnocchi and escargots in chartreuse butter, rolled skate wing stuffed with truffles and leeks — fancy stuff.
I was there for about a month before the fancy stuff disappeared — the snails gone, a pasta section added, sandwiches at happy hour. The redo was an effort, we were told by management, to make the restaurant more “approachable.”
Marzinsky left not long after the menu changed. As did I. In 2017, Fitler Dining Room closed. A sign in the window promised something “new and fresh” from the same owners.
It reopened as Trattoria Carina, a full-on Italian restaurant serving spaghetti and Aperol spritzes. They wanted approachable, right? Italian is the most approachable approach a Philly restaurant can take.
But here’s the thing: In that very same, very small neighborhood, two more Italian restaurants opened this past spring: Cotoletta and Ambrosia (plus, Mama Palma’s — a neighborhood staple — rebranded into Palma’s Cucina, with a menu that now features Italian dishes that aren’t just pizza). Zoom out a bit, and you’ll find that in just the past two years, this city has seen a big ol’ Italian-restaurant explosion, from the big-money theatrics of Giuseppe & Sons in Center City to neighborhood spots like Cry Baby Pasta and Fiore in Queen Village. Many of Philly’s most anticipated restaurant openings are Italian-themed, too: Marc Vetri’s Italian Market pasta bar; Joe Cicala’s fine-dining Italian spot in the new Divine Lorraine.
America’s great food cities are defined not just by the quality of their restaurants and talent of their chefs, but by range, diversity and creativity. It’s easy to understand why Italian food is so popular here — there’s the city’s cultural history, and also the cuisine’s appeal to people who value seasonality and simplicity (read: all chefs; most diners). But when “new and fresh” is eschewed for more pastas and crudos, it could signal a slowdown of innovation.
And really, I can’t blame the decision-makers: Stakes here are higher now, what with more competition, soaring rents, a shrinking talent pool and more fear of failure. But greatness will never come from appealing to the masses. Greatness is born of risk, not approachability. And anyway, since when has Philly — birthplace of the nation, home of Gritty — ever prioritized being “approachable” over being bold?
Published as “Too Much of a Good Thing” in the July 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.