On Monday, they pretty much nailed the tomato panzanella salad, the flounder française, and the cacio e pepe. Maybe more black pepper in the cacio e pepe.
As for the chicken piccata …?
"Red onion?" Vincent Termini Sr., 79, patriarch of the Termini pastry family of South Philadelphia fame, asked in mock alarm. "Who asked for red onion?"
"You did," responded a chorus of voices, explaining that it was, in fact, pickled red onion. Termini, grinning, was unimpressed with the addition.
"No onion," said chef Wesley Fields, mentally checking it off.
This was just another day at the office for Termini and his sons, Vinny and Joe, who are working with restaurateur Michael Schulson on a new restaurant called Giuseppe & Sons. Due to open in early fall at 1523 Sansom St., Giuseppe & Sons will specialize in the bold, two-fisted, Sicilian American cuisine that seldom makes it out of South Philadelphia with its soul intact.
Mr. Vince is as passionate about his fra diavolo as he is about his family's signature cannoli. Fourteen years ago, as Vinny and Joe took over the daily grind at the business that his father, Giuseppe, and his uncle, Gaetano, founded in 1921, Senior opened Mr. Joe's Cafe across Eighth Street from the bakery — in the bakery's original home and beneath his childhood home, no less. Mr. Joe's is a passion project that makes no money while turning out melt-in-your-mouth eggplant parm and penne with braciole. "What I grew up eating," he said.
While heavy construction is underway at Giuseppe & Sons, a daily ritual has been playing out all summer in the basement kitchen of Harp & Crown, the Schulson-owned restaurant next door:
The challenge: Fields and his kitchen staff must channel their inner Vincent Termini Sr. — but not to replicate Mr. Joe's menu literally. "What he does there is awesome, but it's a 20-seat restaurant and he has a limited menu," Schulson said. "We're going to make all of our pastas. We did a tasting side by side. He doesn't make his own pasta, and we were making our own. He's like, 'I love my pasta,' and I do, too. We did a side by side and he picked the homemade pasta that Wesley made. It was great."
Every restaurant tests recipes, of course, but Schulson is lavishing thousands of dollars on Giuseppe & Sons' food and labor before opening. Fields was hired in January and started cooking in earnest in July with culinary director Leo Forneas, refining the dozens of recipes. Now, with about six weeks before the opening, they are training sous-chefs and, soon, line cooks to execute the approved recipes. Every day, Schulson, maybe his wife, Nina Tinari-Schulson, a Termini or three, and various Schulson employees sit at the tiny tables in Harp & Crown's lounge to sample about eight dishes.
"This is really exciting for me, because I'm not used to the whole restaurant tasting thing," said Joe Termini, who turns 45 on Sunday, Aug. 26. "Eleven o'clock, we're eating like a full-course meal. It's blowing me away. One of the most exciting days for me was when I saw Michael roll up his sleeves in the kitchen and he started to go to town with Wesley. He was listening to Wesley, he was learning, he was tasting. I was like, 'We turned him into an Italian.' "
The journey from South Philadelphia to Rittenhouse began at least five years ago, when a friend introduced Vinny Termini, now 39, and Schulson, now 45.
Schulson had always wanted to open a red-gravy-style Italian restaurant in Center City "in the way that we do it — in terms of ultra-designed restaurants," he said. "A fun, theatrical restaurant with really good food." It would complement Schulson's three Japanese restaurants (Izakaya in Atlantic City, Monkitail in Hollywood, Fla., and Double Knot), his Asian restaurant (Sampan, with an adjacent bar), Independence Beer Garden, and the sprawling Harp & Crown, an American restaurant with a bowling lounge in the basement. He also has two more projects, including a steak house in Rittenhouse, on the way.
Giuseppe & Sons will be set up similar to Double Knot, Schulson's Japanese lounge-restaurant in Washington Square West, which operates from morning through late night — the better to maximize revenue. Giuseppe's ground floor will be a daytime luncheonette where patrons can order chicken parm, veal parm, meatball sandwiches, roast pork, salads, and Termini desserts at the counter; there will be a full bar with drinks and coffee. Downstairs, accessed via a dramatic staircase, will be the dinner house — an old-school Italian restaurant with plaster walls, white carrera marble, black and white tiles, and touches of brass.
But Schulson was not thinking of a Termini restaurant collaboration early on.
"I've always been a huge fan of their pastries and what they do there, and I never really ate at Mr. Joe's," said Schulson, who, like Vinny, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
"And then one day he's like, 'When are you coming in?' We started doing our holiday dinner for our entire company over at Mr. Joe's. We would go in there and we'd smoke a cigar with Senior and I just fell in love with that guy. And then Joey, same thing, and I'm like, 'Wow. These are just good people.' "
"We realized their same commitment to excellence and passion," Joey said. "It's not about the money; it's never about the money. It's all about the art, it's about being passionate about what you do. If you do it that way, success follows. It was refreshing to meet somebody that had that same level of commitment. Next thing I know, I hear, 'Hey, listen. Michael's thinking about doing an Italian concept. And he would like for us to get involved.' I was nervous at first. 'Vinny,' I said, 'I can't take on any more responsibility.' "
The Terminis have several retail locations besides the bakery — whose address, 1523 S. Eighth, coincidentally mimics Giuseppe & Sons' 1523 Sansom. They might know their way around sfogliatelle, but not the restaurant business.
"It was the first thing we told Michael," Vinny said. "This is what we do, and we don't want to do something that may impact us in a negative way because we don't know how to do it. And it wasn't until we discussed it more that we came to the realization that Michael appreciated what we do here. And he has the foresight to kind of say, 'Listen, if we could put our energies together, you can assist us in understanding the Italian cuisine of South Philly, and the South Philly culture. We could do the restaurant stuff. We know how to do that.' "
"My father created this restaurant in honor of my grandfather and some of the things that he used to keep," Joe said. "In a nutshell, Mr. Joe's embodies South Philly. He cooks with passion; he doesn't care for profit margins. And trust me when I tell you we argue with him all the time. All he wants to do is come and cook. That's his passion. He really embodies the beauty of South Philly Italian cuisine. He'll buy the better veal and not charge anything extra — just because he wants to do it the right way. I think Michael tasted that and it kind of all came together. And the customers from Mr. Joe's are extremely passionate about quality, home-cooked food. And when they come in here, it's that home-cooked Italian food that their grandparents or their parents grew up with and put on the table for them."
There was silence.
Vince Sr. spoke up: "My wife [Barbara] has one thing that she says to them: 'Be careful. Your name is Termini, make sure it's done right. That's all.' That's all we ask.' "
Fields, 34 — a native of Puerto Rico who had worked at some top restaurants in Washington before relocating to the Philadelphia area to be near his now-wife, Jasmine Fields Diaz — answered the call for the chef's job in December.
"Wesley came in on his first tasting, and we ate his food," Joe said. "We all looked at each other. We didn't even have to say a word. And Michael was like, 'This guy has talent. This guy's good.' He said this is like one in a thousand that you'll find this soon on the search."
Still, Fields himself needed seasoning in the vernacular — both the terminology and the South Philly soul.
"When he first started cooking for us, it was like, this is wrong," Schulson said. "Don't get me wrong. His food was amazing. He's a really creative chef. But it wasn't what the concept was. He wanted to put some fennel in there, and some fresnos in there, and we're like, 'Stop. Less is more.' We traveled and checked out restaurants. So we go to L.A., Atlantic City, New Jersey, New York. We'll take a car up and literally go to five or six restaurants. It's completely gluttonous. It's the most disgusting thing you'll ever do in your life. You literally go to a restaurant, order almost half the dishes on the menu, get up, go to the next one."
Fields gave the Terminis an early chuckle. "I'll never forget it," Joey said. "He described the food here at Mr. Joe's as Southern Philadelphia Italian cuisine. I remember us sitting at the table like, 'All right. Listen. We got to get you straight. It's South Philly Italian.' If you go to some of our customers, 'Southern Philadelphia Italian cuisine,' they're going to look at you like, 'All right, dude. I'll see you at Buca di Beppo.' "
In Fields' defense, "I'm getting told that it's Italian," he said. "I didn't understand what I understand now. 'Oh, it's an American Italian immigrant story vs. traditional Italian.' To me, I'm still thinking that it's traditional Italian. When I got to meet the family and I got to meet Mr. Vince, Joey and Vinny, they made me feel like I'm part of their family. You really do feel the love that they have and the passion they have for what they do. So we go to different places to get ideas. I start cooking some of these ideas, and although they're great, the family just goes, 'It's not South Philly.' I'm trying to cook what I think what they want, rather than truly understanding what the family is about."
Fields said he told Schulson needed to go back to the drawing board. "He said, 'I agree. We need to send you to cook with Mr. Vince,' " Fields said.
Fields spent a month in the kitchen at Termini, studying Senior. "I'm picking his brain," Fields said. "At the beginning, he was like, 'You're trained, and I'm more family taught, and my kids are trained but we're doing pastry,' and I was like, 'Mr. Vince, forget about all of that. Give me your ideas; give me the foods you grew up with.' It was really personal, and when Mr. Vince let me in, and I slowly started understanding what it was, and what they were eating and what they were growing up with, and identified in the same way that I identify with my grandmother's cooking. So, it clicked, and all of a sudden, we're banging out great tastings."
"You're not getting a plate of spaghetti with veal parm and it's $26," Schulson said. "That's what it is in South Philly. You're going to go in there and you're going to be able to pick your spaghetti, and the spaghetti will range from $8 to $14. And if you want a spaghetti with crab or if you want Bolognese, or you want linguine and clams, you can get a nice-size bowl of that for $12, $14. And you can get a chicken parm for $14, $15, $16, with or without pasta. It's separate. Sometimes you go to South Philly restaurants and you get Sunday gravy, and you're like, 'Oh, my God. I can't walk.' We don't want that. We want this to be a place where people can go once a week."
The chicken piccata will get a garnish of sliced lemons. The lobster fra diavolo will include more tomato sauce. And the desserts?