How do you create a successful neighborhood restaurant? It's not always as obvious as following the natural instincts ingrained in most restaurateurs to simply hire the best possible chef, design the most beautiful space, and stoke a citywide buzz.
Ed Hackett can tell you from experience with the now-closed Fitler Dining Room how making a place too ambitious can risk overshooting a neighborhood crowd altogether — even one as well-to-do as Fitler Square's. The gorgeous corner boîte with swanky vintage polish and inventive New American plates at 22nd and Spruce was a critical hit when he and owner Dan Clark opened it in 2013. But with prices trending into the high $20s, it earned a special-occasion reputation that, despite constant attempts to rein it back in, could never be reinvented in customers' minds.
"People were making reservations for birthdays and anniversaries," Hackett says, almost as though that was a bad thing, which, I guess, it was. "Fine dining was not really what we wanted to do, but FDR got away from itself. It just became not fun."
Perhaps the better approach is going dark on the internet, turning away from reservations, encouraging BYOB (your liquor license be damned!), scrapping menu plan #1, changing the name, and just serving Italian food. Of course. It's a solid bet in Philly, where FDR's replacement, Trattoria Carina, is putting the down-low m.o. and pasta fallback plan to the test.
Up went brown paper in the windows late this summer for a transition shrouded in mystery. Away went the haughty dog statues out front (perpetually abused anyway for years by drunk passersby). And in went nearly $10,000 worth of Arcobeleno pasta equipment, a community table flanked by white metal chairs, a green-striped awning, lower prices, and the deliberate inconvenience of not taking reservations that favors spontaneous locals, who won't mind going back home for 45 minutes (or to the owners' Pub & Kitchen nearby) while they chill on the waiting list.
Many of the updated classic dishes here, from the toothy pasta shells in spicy crab gravy to an appealing chicken Milanese topped with grilled cauliflower and arugula salad, are definitely worth the fuss.
"We listened to the neighborhood," Hackett says of the metamorphosis. "And now people who were coming twice a month are coming twice a week."
One of those regulars, an acquaintance, even left her stool at the marble-topped red chef's counter to be sure I registered a friendly advisory: "Don't you dare spoil this place for us with a fantastic review!"
Ok, so … how about a "very good" review? That seems about right for now.
It's hard not to be drawn to this charming 32-seat corner room, whose name means "Little Darling" in Italian, and it certainly plays the part, with white subway tile and mirrored walls agleam from dangling globe lights, its decidedly Fitler- and Rittenhouse-centric customers getting chatty on the cushy green banquettes with dirty martinis, Negronis, and Aperol spritzes in hand. Though Carina's wine list is extremely limited to a handful of average Italian wines by the glass (more reason to BYO), its small list of well-made cocktails jump-starts the room into the feeling of one big jolly dinner party. There was the city councilman on my left, nibbling grilled branzino between questions about our son's school. The lady to my right by the window was feasting on an entire meal of brassicas, so transfixed by her char-grilled broccoli and Brussels sprouts and conversation with her date that she seemed happily oblivious to the carb-fest around her, the neighborhood restaurant like an extension of her own kitchen.
Of course, this space has had success as an Italian restaurant before, as the original Melograno, where Roman-born Gianluca Demontis became one of Philly's early BYOB darlings. Carina's kitchen operates with fewer claims to authenticity or a specific regional focus — as evidenced by the use of milder Parmigiano-Reggiano for the cacio e pepe, which, though creamy and delicious on its own terms, lacked the requisite sheepy tang of a good sharp Pecorino.
The frequently changing menu is inspired more by nostalgia for tried-and-true favorites and by cookbook ideas that talented executive chef Steve Eckerd, who also oversees Pub & Kitchen as well as the Diving Horse, certainly knows what to do with. He worked for a year in the Vetri orbit under Joey Baldino, though his largely French training (Daniel, Le Bec-Fin, Lacroix) often shows itself in the details. He also bakes his tomato sauce (instead of simmering) to concentrate the flavor of Jersey tomatoes for the spaghetti pomodoro, which would have been a fantastic exercise in simplicity if not for too much residual starch from the pasta water, which thickened the finished sauce but also made it too slippery. But for $16.50 a plate, the cheapest dish on a menu that hovers in the low $20s, I've had far worse.
The fine points of touch are the kinds of things that distinguish a good Italian meal from a great one, and Carina's kitchen is still dialing that next level in. But for the most part, with chef de cuisine Peter Bresnahan running the line, we largely enjoyed most of our meals. A colorful medley of pickled heirloom veggies giardiniera is a fantastic way to start, as are the tender confit-cooked chicken wings, which get charred and tossed in a sweet-tart glaze of Tuscan agrodolce. Grilled slivers of pumpkin tossed with farro in a walnut vinaigrette was a satisfyingly hearty seasonal salad. The meatballs in gravy, which were fluffier than they looked, had a more timeless appeal. I loved that Carina pounds out filet mignon for its carpaccio, which has a more meaty texture than when thinly sliced, but the heavy-handed garnishes of soft artichokes and pungent robiola overwhelmed the beef.
A fancy Arcobaleno pasta extruder, which makes a wide variety of shapes from firm semolina dough, is a centerpiece of this menu, and I loved the conch-shaped curl and toothy snap of the shells that cradled an "angry" Dungeness crab gravy that vibrated with such crustacean intensity and firm-handed spice that I've unofficially renamed it Happy Hot Crab pasta. A torch-shaped noodle curl with mushrooms and roasted garlic took on added depth from a splash of 12-year-old balsamic. The hollow spaghetti known as bucatini was a little too soft, adding yet another subtle mark against the already flawed cacio e pepe. The silky ribbons of egg-rich tagliatelle, however, made up for it with a soulful but superbly refined Bolognese that coated the pasta without ever feeling heavy.
Entrees were among the most confident dishes, beginning with the Milanese. The crisp branzino fillet with the diamond marks of a perfect grilling over herbal Tuscan white beans was absolutely worth $24. A thick steak of crispy seared swordfish, roasted in the same pan with blistered peppers and served over roasted pumpkin with sage brown butter sauce, was buttery and naturally sweet — one of the best cuts of swordfish I've eaten in a while. A confit of pork shoulder that was finished to a crisp on the grill and served over a tomatoey gratin known as Luciano potatoes was the epitome of flavorful, slow-braised tenderness.
For dessert, this kitchen relies on solid renditions of the basics: a flourless chocolate torte that won enthusiastic approval from the councilman's companion, and a seasonal fruit crostata whose rustic edges folded up around cinnamon pears kissed with rosemary and vanilla. And then there was the stack of pizzelles, the wafer-thin rounds of sugar-dusted waffle cookies tinged with anise, that were a delight beside hazelnut and chocolate gelati. So homey. So simple. So inviting — like everything else at Trattoria Carina. And the neighborhood clearly approves.