Peter Serpico, From Ambitious Fine Dining to Takeout Noodles

In the age of COVID, survival outweighs flash and flair.

Peter Serpico outside his restaurant on South Street — now home to Pete’s Place | Photo by Neal Santos | Facebook

Serpico (the restaurant) has had a strange life in Philly. On its face, it’s always had the makings of something exceptional. It opened as a partnership between Stephen Starr and Peter Serpico, a chef who earned the bulk of his culinary credentials — some Michelin stars; a James Beard award — cooking and opening some of the most important, most vaunted kitchens in modern American dining history, rising the ranks from sous at David Chang’s original Momofuku Noodle Bar to director of culinary operations for the entire company, expanding the Momofuku brand across the globe.

When he decided to put down roots in Philly, Starr built out what was essentially a black box theater (albeit a sexy black box theater — out of an old Foot Locker space on South Street, no less) for Serpico and his modern American flair. The chef would be at center stage, head down, hard at work with his team inside Philly’s open-iest open kitchen, walled in on all sides by a chef counter, so that diners (who, in 2013, were still very much starstruck by James Beard awards and Michelin stars) could watch them deep fry duck legs and stuff them into potato buns.

The chef counter at Serpico | Photo by Mike Persico

Serpico opened to rave reviews. Serpico was booked out constantly. When Jay-Z was in town one summer, he ate at Serpico. Food & Wine, the Washington Post, all the national media outlets gave it attention. Serpico was a resounding success right out the gate.

But like with all restaurants, the New Car Smell faded, and Serpico’s fate was left up to regular ol’ Philadelphians looking for a place to eat on weekends. Remember, Serpico opened as a Very Serious Restaurant, even if, over time, its menu items fell into a more playful and familiar territory. It was tweezer food and fine dining service in a neighborhood and on a street known, at least from a culinary perspective, for cheesesteaks. Fried chicken and donuts if you include the Federal Donuts that opened two doors away. Serpico, as good of a restaurant as it was, just didn’t have the always-booked dining room it deserved. That it needed.

Serpico (the restaurant) had a strange end in Philly, because, well, all COVID-related restaurant closures feel both needless and, in a bizarre turn of events, expected. “We can’t do outdoor seating on South Street,” Serpico tells me when I reach him by phone. “And at 25 or even 50 percent indoors, it just doesn’t make sense.”

But it’s an even stranger end in that it’s not a full-on closure. He says that there are potential plans to move the restaurant elsewhere, that the neighborhood wasn’t the right fit for the concept and its clientele. “We had a bigger, better reputation outside Philly than we did here,” he says. “To people from out of town, 604 South Street was just another address. To them, it wasn’t contextualized by, you know, South Street.” He says he’s been told by friends that he was “ten years too early” when he opened in 2013. “But I wasn’t trying to change South Street. For me, it was about the space. The neighborhood has redeeming qualities, sure, but it was the space … I felt it right away when I was in it the first time. It just felt right. You can’t fabricate that feeling.”

Serpico’s chalkboard menus | Photo by Mike Persico

In the meantime, Serpico (the chef) is launching a takeout/delivery concept out of the Serpico kitchen (still in partnership with Starr) called Pete’s Place, a “kinda” Korean takeout shop — sort of salute to his own Korean-American background. “Casual, to-go stuff. Not super-traditional by any means,” he says. Beef and radish soup, crispy chicken wings, bibimbap. The noodle dishes include a pickled pepper ramen, spicy chicken noodles, chilled buckwheat noodles, and kimchi noodles done “Tsukemen Style” with a rich dipping broth and concentrated sauce served on the side. When asked if Pete’s Place was a concept he’d always wanted to do, he says, “It was a concept that came, mostly, from a place of survival … I’ve got bills to pay, you know?”

Pete’s Place could be temporary, or it could be permanent depending on its success, but one thing’s for certain: Peter Serpico going from Serpico, an eponymous restaurant with a bespoke kitchen, to Pete’s Place, an eponymous delivery noodle shop built for his (and his team’s) own survival, is a very real and unfortunate situation that’s starting to look all too familiar.

We saw so many restaurant owners and chefs pivot their business models over the summer, making their menus more takeout-friendly, simplifying their offerings to crowd-pleasing items. Because chef-y ambition is for the good times. And 2020 has been anything but.

Pete’s Place will offer delivery and takeout from 604 South Street starting today.