New York is where young chefs go to prove themselves. Philly? This is where many come to find a home.
It’s a familiar story line now, and it’s unfolding once again, deliciously, in the airy space of Fiore in Queen Village, where live fires perfume the room and the dreams of another talented chef couple are playing out in the flaky spirals of morning pastries layered with pistachio cream, delicate hand-folded pastas, and rustic platters of wood-roasted meats.
The nearly two-pound short rib is so massive its dangling crowbar of a bone practically drags across the table as the joint settles between us, radiating the aroma of its cinnamon and star anise cure. There’s a campfire crust from its finishing turn in the wood-fired oven. But the grass-fed local beef from Primal Supply is so sublimely tender, the base of cipollini onions so deeply caramelized in juices tinged with a Roman wink of colaturra fish sauce, that everyone at my table took a forkful and simultaneously moaned a visceral, “Oh...”
Someone here most definitely knows how to cook, even if the names Justine MacNeil and Ed Crochet are still unknown to most Philadelphians. But after a few memorable meals at Fiore, it’s time for an introduction, because they chose us.
“We were happy with our jobs [in New York],” MacNeil said. She was executive pastry chef at Del Posto for several years; husband Crochet was chef de cuisine at Craft, then executive chef for Starr Catering’s operations at the New York Historical Society and Carnegie Hall. “But we couldn’t see ourselves growing old there. Every chef contemplates opening their own restaurant, and Philly fit those goals better.”
When Crochet relocated here in 2018 to run the Starr Catering kitchen at Rat’s in Hamilton, N.J., their eyes first were opened to Philadelphia’s potential with a meal at Zahav (“so wowed by the food and comfortable hospitality,” MacNeil said), then with the city’s “approachable, human scale.”
I worry their unfamiliarity with the subtleties of neighborhood dynamics may have lured them into a larger, trickier space than they bargained for. The former Kanella South (and Frederick’s) is at first appearance a grand spot on leafy Front Street, a comfy glassed-in dining room with 78 seats at booths and a long country table flanking the open kitchen, a vintage barroom in the attached 19th-century rowhouse, and patio seating to its north. Of course, that al fresco perch has a stellar city’s edge view of, uh, I-95 traffic, which only slightly dampens its twinkly parkside peace.
Finding a delicate balance between neighborhood standby status and special-occasion destination (take an Uber, because parking there is scarce) has always been a challenge. It was a smart move for this couple to view their new project as an all-day Italian venue, sort of like a larger Res Ipsa East. And they launched quietly, initially with only daytime hours, particularly pleasant in the morning light with a steady parade of MacNeil’s pastries.
A flaky pistachio cornetto (essentially an Italian croissant) and sugar-dusted morning buns laced with orange zest and anise are perfect. And the pillowy-soft Florentine focaccia called schiacciata also are fantastic, spiked with Calabrian chilies and pecorino, or sandwiching a fried egg and (slightly too) thick puck of house-made fennel sausage. The toasted house sourdough topped with creamy ricotta, rhubarb, honey and Sicilian olive oil? Irresistible. Add a hot cup of thick drinking chocolate, made here from special Italian chocolates that are so intense they’re almost spicy, and I could stay for a while.
The daytime launch was not so much strategy as a default plan when the liquor license transfer dragged on longer than expected — a familiar tale that’s certainly the least of Philly’s charms. They’ve made up for lost time with a smart bar program from general manager Thaddeus Dynakowski, an alum of Fork and High Street. He’s built a small but focused collection of well-crafted cocktails with an Italian theme (try the Zucca Rabarbaro-kissed Primavera or bracing Mule di Milano), collected dozens of amari, and is pouring a growing Italian wine list that pairs well with the food and offers some lesser-known bottles, like the Lazio Frascati from Pallavicini or a Cesanese that was all red fruit, tobacco and leather.
The breakfast and brunch debut has been helpful to lure a crowd of newly devoted locals. But dinner is Fiore’s natural meal. And with a combination of rustic fire and refined seasonality, Crochet is proving to be a chef worth crossing town for. Even the smallest bites — the deep-fried olives stuffed with house sausage; the airy zeppoli puffs flared with Calabrian chile and spring garlic; a vivid green mash of fava beans and mint to be scooped with paper-thin rye crackers — were memorable.
There are some other warm starters for sharing that are not to be missed, like the warm chickpea “farinata” pancake cooked over the wood fire topped with baby artichokes zesty with lemon and herbs. or the deeply charred cauliflower spiced with star anise and paprika topped with saffron bread crumbs and Castelvetrano olives. A carpaccio of salt-cod looked like a painting of “Spring Meets Sea,” the pliant but still tender sheet of brined cod dotted with sweet-tart crimson cubes of pickled rhubarb and dabs of fennel-infused yogurt that softened and enriched the marine edge.
Crochet’s skill with handmade pasta, informed by childhood years as a military kid living near Naples, Italy, frequent travels to Italy, and some time in the pasta kitchen at Del Posto (he and McNeil met at Craft), is impressive. I’ve had moon-shaped mezzalunas stuffed with beets and ricotta before. But Crochet’s elegant rendition of this Northern Italian delight, tossed in lemon-poppy butter, was stunning. Is there a better way to eat your beets? No.
The mini ravioli cushions of his agnolotti del plin drew deep savor from their roasted pork and fennel stuffings. A filling of roasted chicken tweaked with orange and pine nuts gave personality to the bonbon-shaped caramelle topped with charred poblano peppers. A dab of rosemary-infused porcini butter helped the potato gnocchi melt away. Meanwhile, a classic side dish of “gnocchi alla Romana” (different from the dumpling) was a heat-charred semolina pudding we couldn’t resist.
The appearance of the hand-braided pasta loops called lorighittas were proof that the pasta universe contains infinite wonders, but also that Italian-rich Philly is in the midst of its golden age of noodlecraft. This once nearly extinct specialty from Sardinia, usually served with calamari rings that mimic its shape, arrived here with chunks of confit swordfish that flaked against the chewy pasta in a seafood broth steeped with kombu and the vegetal snap of shishito peppers.
At $14 to $18, these mid-sized pastas are fairly priced for the quality. And with a few small plates ($7 to $14) or some skewers of grilled scallops over wild mustard greens or the tender arrosticini chunks of lamb in capery salsa verde, Fiore can easily serve as a midweek meal.
But the full effect of the magnificent live-fire hearth and grill left by Kanella South is best experienced on the larger cuts of meat and whole fish served for sharing, which definitely are an occasion splurge. For $52, the full pound of flesh still on that short-rib bone after cooking was well worth the investment. But so was the $32 half-duck, whose honey and black tea-glazed flesh was burnished to a charcoal darkness over two hours of hang time over the smoky hearth before it was broken down into tender pink slices with a sweet-and-sour splash of cherry sauce studded with marcona almonds. A whole black bass whose partially boneless midriff was stuffed with fennel and herbs was a lighter but equally flavorful option, with a creamy tahini-dill sauce that added a surprising Levantine note.
Side dishes like the Umbrian lentils steeped with prosciutto and tiny butterball potatoes roasted in the wood oven with porchetta drippings were natural add-ons to buffer all that meat.
But MacNeil’s desserts are also not to be missed.
Her Tuscan-style rice pudding enriched with egg yolks and cream was a deft twist on a familiar flavor, with rhubarb marmalata echoing the season, and a caramelized sesame tuile and sunflower seed gelato bringing some nutty richness. Her cashew cake with candied millet and a stunningly rich chocolate budino pudding were also hits. But the real stars, I think, were her fabulous frozen scoops, silky in texture and vivid in flavor, from the cocoa nib sorbetto that added depth to that cashew cake to the pure cream burst of fior di latte crowing with the dark budino.
In fact, MacNeil initially dreamed of opening a small ice cream shop or bakery when she first left New York to be with Crochet. Lucky for us, the two quickly realized that in Philly, the land of restaurant ambitions answered, Fiore could blossom into a much bigger dream.
757 S. Front St., 215-339-0509; fiore-finefoods.com
Handmade Italian goodness, and a talented husband-wife duo with experience in some of New York’s best restaurants have brought new life and warm hospitality to the wood-fired hearth of the former Kanella South in Queen Village. All-day menus feature Justine MacNeil’s excellent pastries in the morning while dinner showcases Ed Crochet’s outstanding pastas, seasonal small plates and large-format sharing platters of meats and whole fish imbued with the rustic power of life fire. The bar and wine list offers thoughtful Italian options that are still growing while this lovely space finds its balance between neighborhood standby and special-occasion destination.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Daily pastries (pistachio cornetti; morning buns); ricotta toast with rhubarb; schiacciata breakfast sandwiches. Dinner: savory zeppoli; stuffed olives Ascolane; salt cod carpaccio; farinata with artichokes; butter lettuce salad with cacio e pepe fritelle; agnolotti del plin; mezzaluna with beets; lorighittas with swordfish; chicken caramelle with poblanos; scallops; lamb arrosticini; short rib for two; black bass; lentils; gnocchi alla Romana; butterball potatoes; torta di riso; chocolate budino; cashew cake; all gelati.
DRINKS An Italian theme informs the whole bar program, from the long list of amari (more than 30!) to the fizzy aperitivi and signature cocktails (the rhubarb-tinted Primavera was a fave), and small but well-chosen wine list. Try the Roman Frascati from Pallavicini for a fascinating white; Alcestri’s Isola del Satiro Nero d’avola for a perfect short rib match.
WEEKEND NOISE Lively but manageable as crowds, to date, have been light.
IF YOU GO Café menu Wednesday through Friday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m.; Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Pastas, $14-$18; Sharing plates (for two), $37-$52.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested for dinner.
Street parking only.