So what is a restaurant critic to do now? Never mind that. What are we all to do now that the region’s restaurant dining rooms have been shut down for everything but take-out meals?
This is a scary time for everyone on multiple levels, and we have been moving fast to refocus our food coverage in the most relevant, useful ways. What to eat remains a fundamental human question — especially during a crisis.
I will continue patronizing restaurants that are able to remain open for take-out, perhaps the best way to continue supporting those businesses. We’ll also be following the government’s response to address the hospitality industry’s pain, which is urgent.
Meanwhile, I’ve already started to cook like a demon — provided I can find flour, meat, and yeast, which, judging by the ravaged market shelves this week, is no given. But I’m resourceful. Those chicken feet that were the last pack of any protein left at MOM’s Organic Market? That’s gold for stock, people!
Americans are now going to have to embrace cooking in a way they’ve not done in a long time. But for me, it’s an opportunity to dive into the cookbooks I’ve collected over the years. With so much time spent in restaurants for work, though, cooking through them has always been a “one day” proposition. Now that day has come. And one especially rewarding way to stay connected to Philly’s rich food scene is to explore the deep catalog of cookbooks old and new from local chefs.
The list of possibilities is long and diverse, including some recent offerings. Among the first I’ll get to and linger over is Dinner at the Club: 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly’s Palizzi Social Club (Running Press Books, 2019). Coauthored by owner-chef Joey Baldino and food writer Adam Erace, it has everything from Chinotto-braised ribs to stromboli, spumoni and spaghetti and crabs. But Baldino’s soulful escarole and bean soup is an invitingly easy place to start with a bowl of genuine South Philly comfort. Try it with the book’s lemon-roasted chicken.
Speaking of comfort, pizza is also high on my list — and a great family activity. I decided to recreate the crusty magic of Pizzeria Beddia (my 2019 restaurant of the year) using owner Joe Beddia’s masterpiece book created with home cooks in mind, Pizza Camp: Recipes from Pizzeria Beddia (Abrams Books, 2017). I happened to have the right can of Jersey Fresh tomatoes used in Beddia’s book, so it was fate. The basic dough and sauce recipes are excellent, with clever little touches. Even the best home pizza recipes, though, inevitably result in crusts that leave me wishing for a better oven.
We have several notable pizza authors, including Marc Vetri, but I’ll be turning to him for Mastering Pasta (Ten Speed Press, 2015) — and dreams of my next meal at the counter of Fiorella’s. Veteran chef and author Aliza Green has a pasta book, too, but I’m going to be consulting her quarantine-friendly guide for Y2K-era “Legumaniacs,” The Bean Bible (Running Press, 2000).
In the spirit of stocking up the pantry, I’ll be canning along to Marisa McClellan’s Food in Jars oeuvre of books in order to preserve the bounty of spring produce about to arrive. My family’s recent commitment to Meatless Mondays should get a creative plant-based boost from Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s V-Street: 100 Globe-Hopping Plates (William Morrow Books, 2016).
Some of our most inspired Philadelphia chefs bring an international flavor. Most everyone knows the treasure trove of modern Israeli recipes from the team behind Zahav (Rux Martin, 2015) and Israeli Soul (Rux Martin, 2018). Lesser-known but equally inspired is the award-winning book from one of Michael Solomonov’s best friends, Reem Kassis. I want to cook through all of The Palestinian Table (Phaidon, 2017), but will start with her relatively easy lamb kafta and tomato bake casserole.
Meanwhile, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, whose restaurant empire began on Chestnut Street, has my go-to recipes for dashi, miso fish marinades, hand-cut udon, and genuine chicken teriyaki in Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking (Ecco, 2016).
For modern French cuisine with a seasonal Philly twist and lofty inspirations, it’s worth browsing Erace’s collaboration last year with Nicholas Elmi, the Top Chef-winning owner of Laurel, ITV, and Royal Boucherie. Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia (Running Press Books, 2019) is a coffee table gastro-dream considerably heavier on haute techniques and high-end ingredients. But my xanthan gum-averse colleague Allison Steele’s successful hands-on attempt at Laurel’s truffled ricotta gnocchi gave me hope: One day, when we can start thinking of such luxuries again, I’ll be ready to roll.
For dessert, I’ll rely on two sweet emissaries of Philly past. The flaky crust and rich filling of Holly Ricciardi’s butterscotch bourbon pie from Magpie (Running Press, 2015) still inspires me. Of much older vintage is the Frog Commissary Cookbook (Camino Books, 2002), a compendium of recipes from the two legendary restaurants that helped define Philly’s Restaurant Renaissance in the 1970s and ’80s. Among its retro treasures is the carrot cake that launched the nationwide craze. This irresistible cream cheese-frosted indulgence has endured this long. It can carry us through with Philly-style comfort to whatever’s next.