When it comes to new restaurants from star chefs, the first course - expectations - will inevitably be reckoned with before we even take a bite.
So here was my first thought at 24 Wood-Fired Fare before I even took a sip of See the Joy, a gimlet rimmed with smoky paprika, or nibbled on those meatballs bobbing in gravy: Why did Jose Garces open a pizzeria?
Garces has made his name as an innovator, of course, rooted in the Latin successes of Amada, Tinto, and Distrito, pioneering a better burger method at Village Whiskey, and forging boldly (if not always smoothly) into modern gastronomy at Volvér.
The wood-fired Italian pizzeria wave is anything but innovative. It has so thoroughly saturated Center City by now, you can eat a different pie on practically every other block from river to river.
Garces' take here does not add anything especially novel to the trend, even if there are some very good things to eat. But what's most notable about 24 is actually the Schuylkill itself - and the restaurant's proximity to it, anchoring the base of the Walnut Street Bridge with a glorious balcony perch that overlooks the Schuylkill River Trail.
Philadelphia has shamefully wasted most of its waterfront access when it comes to worthy restaurant projects. And this project appears to be calibrated in service to what its location can use as a neighborhood and riverfront amenity, rather than any grand culinary statement. The Garces Group's offices, not coincidentally, also happen to be located behind the space, a postindustrial concrete box wrapped in windows and softened by tufted black booths, a social bar, and live wood tabletops flanked by red seats.
The best pizza in Philly? Not even close. In fact, the pizzas are surprisingly among the restaurant's weaker links. At the same time, there are more than enough good things on the rest of the menu, from fresh salads and well-crafted hoagies for lunch to simple but satisfying pastas at very fair prices, not to mention some well-tuned drinks, that I can easily imagine visiting 24 again for a casual bite by the river.
Judging from the big crowds of Penn students and families from the neighborhood nearby, 24 has already begun finding its local audience. It should grow swiftly once spring warms and the glass doors on its western edge glide open to a mezzanine with 36 seats to take in the view of bikers and joggers zooming by, and the river's reflection of the growing University City skyline.
A salad would seem perfect for an al fresco meal - or a healthy plate after working out at the Sweat gym across the street - and 24 makes several very good ones. The Brussels sprout Caesar is the likely star, a big mound of shredded raw sprouts tossed in a zingy dressing threaded with julienned green apple, crunchy kohlrabi, and savory nuggets of hot pancetta to add character. The South Philly Chopped is a salad version of an antipasto, with a well-balanced blend of slivered soppressata, sweet peppers, feta, and crispy chickpeas in a fresh oregano vinaigrette. The Verde is a deceptively complex study in green: snappy favas, crunchy green beans, peppery arugula, and creamy avocado against toothy shavings of Bianco Sardo cheese.
If you're there for lunch, try the hoagies built on seeded rolls from South Philly's New York Bakery. I loved the tuna salad mashed with olive oil and tangy green olives; and the comforting chicken Parmesan moistened with warm marinara and milky sweet mozzarella.
For dinner, a few of the antipasti also make a nice start. A whole head of harissa-glazed cauliflower charred in the wood oven, set over labneh yogurt, and then caked with aromatic dukkah - a cuminy Egyptian spice blend of crushed sesame, grains of paradise, and Marcona almonds - may be 24's most distinctive dish. But small tweaks to more familiar dishes were also winning, like the nasturtium pesto for the creamy burrata, or a torched 'nduja puree beneath scored curls of tender calamari, or the generous crock of meatballs, amped with Serrano ham scraps, that were notably tender. I would have loved the farinata chickpea-flour pancake laced with artichokes had it still been hot when it came to the table.
It's hard to hold it against our servers. The staff here couldn't have been nicer or more outgoing, though their inexperience was apparent, especially when busy. We waited 10 minutes at our first visit before anyone greeted us at the table or gave us water. And it doesn't get more tacky (literally) than the chemical-soaked towelettes used to clean the table beneath our noses between courses. They smelled like diaper wipes.
Even so, the inconsistent pizzas here are a bigger strike. One crust is blond and floppy. Another is roasted to a tawny brown dry crisp. Rarely did I see the kind of leopard spotting that rings a pie roasted in the properly infernal heat of a Neapolitan-style hearth. The pepperoni pizza was so wet in the middle the meat slices boiled in sauce rather than roasted and crisped. The clam pizza tasted too faintly of clam.
There were definitely some pizza successes. The best red pie was topped with house-made lamb sausage and green olives. And most of the white pies were very good - a five-cheese medley that swirled tangy blue with piquant manchego and creamy mozz, and an oven-singed cauliflower pizza dabbed with funky pickled shishito peppers. But in a city now brimming with outstanding pizzas, 24's pies will be judged closely - and fall short of a destination status for the pizzas alone.
And yet, the pastas here were great, especially for $14 to $16. I loved the simplicity and deep flavor of the cacio e pepe spaghetti in pecorino broth dusted with crunchy sunchokes. An earthy buckwheat pasta came in an especially vivid pesto. I'm all for the twang of tuna, both ground and flaked, in the bold marine take on Bolognese. I'm also an easy mark for any dumpling stuffed with braised rabbit, even if these agnolotti, served beneath buttery bubbles in cherry juice, were a little dry inside.
We'd already been launched to good spirits with a series of creative but well-crafted cocktails in classy coupes, like the Cherry Range Manhattan tinged with subtle smoke from oven-charred cherries, or the Daily Routine, a refreshing Pimm's Cup energized by local Asian pear kombucha from Baba's Brew. The all-Italian wine list at 24 has plenty of interesting choices for around $50 or less a bottle. But for us, the casual spirit of this riverside room drew us to the affordable and uncomplicated wines on draft. A fizzy and off-dry prosecco sparkled with orchard fruit. And then a Povero Barbera d'Asti, fruit forward and juicy but not entirely dumbed down, was a deal at $22 for a 15-ounce carafe, and a match for the pizza and simple pastas.
By the end, I was startled once again by the fact this restaurant makes only one dessert in house (beyond assorted Capogiro gelati). A lack of ambition? Maybe, based on Garces expectations. But as I spooned through the silky layers of that perfetto parfait's chocolate mousse and creamy mascarpone, I decided it was a success on its own simple terms. Just like the restaurant itself.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews La Cabra Brewing in Berwyn.
2401 Walnut St.; 215-333-3331, 24philly.com
Jose Garces' foray into the wood-fired Italian wave serves solid renditions of tasty antipasti, excellent pastas, and fresh salads at fair prices in a casual, industrial chic setting that occupies a special perch overlooking the Schuylkill River Trail. The inconsistent pizzas need work for this project to rise beyond simply being of neighborhood interest. But the unique location, simple successes, and circular bar have potential to grow into a fixture for those crossing the Walnut Street Bridge.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS South Philly chopped salad; Brussels sprout Caesar; verde salad; burrata with nasturtium salsa verde; cauliflower with dukkah; polpette; calamari; artichoke farinata; cacio e pepe; pesto pasta; tuna Bolognese; lamb-sausage pizza; four cheese pizza; cauliflower pizza; chicken parm hoagie (lunch); tuna hoagie (lunch); perfetto.
DRINKS Classic cocktails get Italian twists with amari, wood-charred ingredients, and deft balance for one of the restaurant's stronger suits. Try the Cherry Range (with charred cherry), smoky See the Joy, and the Daily Routine kombucha riff on a Pimm's Cup. The all-Italian wine list is also appealing with a range of options around $50 or less a bottle, but try the wines on draft. At $22-$24 for a 15-ounce carafe, they embody the easy-drinking spirit of the space. Grappas and amari make for fine riverside sipping.
WEEKEND NOISE With lots of hard concrete surfaces, noise can hit a boisterous 93 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m. Happy Hour nightly from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Coffee bar opens Monday through Friday at 8 a.m.; weekends at 11:30.
Pastas and pizzas, $14-$16.
All major cards.
Reservations encouraged, but not required.
Parkway offers a discounted rate of $5 parking after 6 p.m. and weekends (up to 2 hours). The lot and ADA entrance are located at 24th and Sansom Streets. For directions, please use the following address: 120 S. 24th St.