We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments.
Eleven years ago, when Maria Vanni and chef MaryAnn Brancaccio opened August at 13th and Wharton Streets, the South Philly dining scene was relatively sleepy.
Not anymore: East Passyunk is one of the hottest restaurant strips in town.
The buzz surrounding the area actually hasn't had much effect on the partners' Italian BYOB, which is three or so blocks off the Avenue - the 12 tables in the maroon-and-black corner space are as busy as they've always been, filled to capacity during Wednesday-Saturday dinner service with friends and regulars.
We caught up with the pair, who are partners in life as well as business, for a quick check-in.
What inspired you to open August, your first restaurant, and how did you choose the location?
We both grew up in South Philly — we've lived in the same 19147 zip code our whole life. When we met in August of 1991, Maria''s father was a chef at Piccolo's on 11th and Christian (it has since closed) and we used to go there all the time.
We also each worked in restaurants for a while, separately, and we were great entertainers — friends always gathered at our house. So when a friend decided to buy this building and offered to offer us the ground-floor space for our own spot, we went for it.
Is the neighborhood around August different now than in 2003?
Yes! It has changed a lot. We've always loved it, but now it's so young and lively. It's great
How about your menu, Maryann, has that changed over the past 11 years?
Not really, not much. I always change it a little bit, here and there, but it's gotten to the point where I can't take dishes off the menu because my regulars will get mad.
What are those dishes, your most popular plates?
Sausage bolognese over rigatoni is definitely one. I used to do a veal bolognese like my mom made, but one day I tried a special using sausage and it was a huge hit, so I put it on the menu. Now I sometimes have to make two huge batches each week, even though we're only open four nights. Another popular one is the farfalle with crab and porcini mushrooms.
How about the prices; those must have gone up?
Not really. Maybe a dollar or two. You can get away with serving people pasta without charging a lot. We don't like to make things expensive. And we love pasta. Maryann could eat it seven nights a week.
Do you eat it that often, Maryann?
No, but probably three or four nights a week is accurate. I grew up eating pasta all the time, we had a huge family with seven kids and it was the easy way to feed us.
Have you ever considered moving to a larger location, or expanding in some way?
Some days I wish I had a little bit more space in the kitchen, but then I realize it would be harder to control. We love the location, so we figure we'll just stay where we're at.
Do you dine out on your nights off?
We go out a lot. We go to Tamarind on South Street at least once a week. We also love Noord on 11th and Tasker. Often we'll spend Sunday and Monday with friends in NYC and go out to eat there.
Is there a closed Philadelphia restaurant that you miss?
Not really. There's plenty of good stuff around now...so much out there to choose from. Philly is now definitely a restaurant town. When I attended the Restaurant School, class of 1997, teachers told us, "In the next 30 years, there won't be enough chefs for all the restaurants that are going to open." I didn't believe them, but they were right!
1247 S. 13th St.; 215-468-5926
Open: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Wed. and Thurs.; 5:30 to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat.