Goodbye, Res Ipsa Cafe
Bidding a sad farewell to the Rittenhouse coffee shop that turned into a tiny Italian BYOB at night.
Back when things weren’t the way they are now, people would always ask me what my favorite restaurant in Philly was. My answer was that there was no such thing. Because, personally, I believe restaurants — and the ways we feel about them — are circumstantial. Our favorite restaurant is entirely dependent on who we’re with, on what kind of mood we’re in, on whatever flavors we’re craving. No single restaurant is good for just any occasion, and the restaurants that aim to be something for everyone tend to be diluted and drab.
Two summers ago, I spent a few days eating around New York City. Lilia, the Williamsburg Italian restaurant by international pasta star Missy Robbins, had been open for two years at that point, and even with a reservation, we had to wait an hour for our table. In 2016, Eater’s readers named Lilia the “Restaurant of the Year,” and Robbins “Chef of the Year.” That same year, Times critic Pete Wells included it in his Top New York Restaurants list. She got a James Beard award in 2018. That pasta restaurant got every single accolade a restaurant could possibly get. And as I sat there in that perfect dining room — being ignored by a server who simply couldn’t be bothered; my wallet already screaming for help — I wondered, for a second, what all the fuss was about, which is a terrible thing to wonder while you’re still inside a restaurant. The pasta was great, but so refined I had to think about every bite. I liked that the mafaldini was chewy, and each curl in the pasta held a pearl of pink peppercorn and cheese. I liked that the tiny pockets of cheese agnolotti were scented with saffron and sweetened with honey. I liked Lilia. But the entire time I was there, I wished I was back in Philly, inside that coffee shop a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square that turned into an Italian restaurant at night. The one that never made me question the fuss. The one that just closed.
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With Res Ipsa, ReAnimator’s Mark Corpus and Mark Capriotti and Stock’s Tyler Akin managed to open the most Philly restaurant in the world and a restaurant that wasn’t very Philly at all. It had all that DIY scrappiness we love about our BYOB scene; it had the closeness and comfort of our chef-owned independent spots. Its chef, Michael Vincent Ferreri, did Sicilian food with an ever-so-slightly modern hand, polka-dotting plates with squid ink in one course, shaving bottarga over slices of blood orange in another. The pastas were delicious, but not so perfect that it ruined the fun.
But I loved the service more than anything. One night, my party was the only table left in the restaurant. We were overstaying our welcome like jerks. But instead of pushing us out, our server let us choose the music they’d clean up to. I think we chose Rihanna. They blasted it. Cleaned around us while we finished our bottle, and we left happy, full and drunk.
But Res Ipsa had a confidence about it that so few restaurants in this city have. Philly loves an underdog — so much so that it sometimes over-values redemption. Through the years, I watched and I wrote as our chefs and restaurants tried (at times, too hard) to prove their worth. Res Ipsa seemed to know its worth. And it played to its strengths, so it filled up regularly. But from what I know, it didn’t make much money (restaurants like these — tiny BYOBs in high-rent areas — typically don’t).
It was just a coffee shop with a solid breakfast sandwich during the day. And my favorite restaurant in Philly at night.