Phil Manganaro bakes the rustic Italian bread and makes the silky pastas that emerge from the solo kitchen at his tiny Park Place Cafe & Restaurant. He forages the wild black trumpet mushrooms for his buttery rabbit agnolotti. He gathers tupelo berries from neighboring trees to make a sweet-and-sour juice that swirls with a wild-berry tartness through spicy oil around luscious pink slices of tuna-belly sashimi. The chef even boiled down the ocean water from one of his surfing jaunts to the Jersey Shore to make the sea salt flaked over top.
"He pretty much does everything back there but kill the animals," joked Francesca Venti, Manganaro's girlfiend and manager, who runs the 32-seat dining room of this unexpected BYOB find in Merchantville with soft-spoken grace.
So you're thinking… Merchant-where?! And I'm not surprised. This little borough hidden away just north of Route 38 is about as underrated as it gets, even though it has a sweet old-school ice cream parlor (Merchantville Sweet Shop), a classic candy-maker (Aunt Charlotte's), a lively farmers' market, a craft-beer bar (Blue Monkey Tavern), a decent Indian restaurant (Aroma), a real butcher (McFarlan's Market), and an upstart microbrewery (Eclipse) brightening a tidy downtown district that is closer to Center City than Bala Cynwyd is.
Even so, this charming small town is not the kind of place I'd expect edgy dishes like grilled octopus topped with a crackly sheet of "crispy pig face," tortellini stuffed with calves' tongue, or roasted wild hen of the woods mushrooms foraged just hours before dinner and served in oxtail broth enriched with bone marrow beneath a flurry of shaved black truffles.
"Well, I was expecting nothing when I came over the bridge to eat here, but … it was wonderful," a pharmacist and wine collector I know reportedly said to Manganaro after his meal.
It's a thought that echoed in my mind recently, too, as I savored the sublime tenderness of a suckling pig, its juicy meat wrapped in a sheer cracker of skin over a plate of cippolini onions and a tangy puree of earthy peppers that Manganaro had dried in the sun himself. The surprise factor for me was not simply that I agreed with the pharmacist, but that Park Place has existed since January and remained largely the secret of locals and wine clubs who seek out kitchens with the culinary will and muscle to do their home cellars justice.
Manganaro, 37, may not be a name diners are familiar with yet. But as a longtime acolyte of chef Chris Painter, his list of experiences within the Starr orbit and elsewhere is as familiar as it is diverse, from Il Pittore to Parc, El Vez, Butcher & Singer, Dandelion, and Michael Schulson's Izakaya, which he also helped to open.
He might still be in the line-cook shadows today had he not been obliged to craft his own project due to a complicated family situation as a single dad. But if ever a reminder was needed to illustrate why a BYOB remains the single best way for someone with a lack of resources to create a special dining experience, Park Place is the region's latest great example. Manganaro launched it with $30,000 and a lot of handiwork.
The space is pleasant but not fancy. The room's walls slant south at an odd 20-degree angle. The lighting could be better. The decor highlight is a series of wall shelves holding ferns and plants he's collected along his foraging trips through the Pine Barrens, where he also finds the fresh juniper berries that infuse the "magic oil" that lends his deeply earthy porcini soup an herbal zing. A century-old Pooley Phonograph box he restored has come to life with vinyl records spinning Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra at one end of the room while a gleaming Cimbali espresso maker steams away in back.
But it's the chef's determination to cook the best food he knows for his devoted customers, including one neighbor who's shown up every Friday with his wife at 10:50 p.m. for the last five months, that fills this room with something rare and special, the intangible warmth of genuine hospitality, and an ever-changing lineup of impressive flavors.
That gourmand neighbor is apparently the reason Manganaro usually keeps truffles around, and I'm now thankful after devouring an omelet at brunch so filled with shaved truffles it looked as though it were stuffed with black checkers. A thick-cut French toast made from house-baked milk bread with maple syrup – yes, Manganaro sometimes makes his own maple syrup in season, too – gave the small brunch menu allure.
But dinner is where the chef really shines. And I see glimpses of all Manganaro's kitchen stops on his constantly changing menus, with strong Italian and French tendencies, and a personal touch. There's a bit of Izakaya and Il Pittore in the raw fish dishes like the toro crudo, and a hamachi crudo topped with pistachio-steeped oil. I could taste elements of both the Dandelion and Butcher & Singer in the thick-cut crispy potatoes with rib eye, but, oh, that meat, a bone-in slice of beef that's dry-aged for 55 days, had a deep, meaty resonance I have not tasted in a while.
The pastas are exceptional, from soft agnolotti pillows stuffed with rabbit and mascarpone to the veal (tongues) tortellini whose wide-brimmed edges cradled brown-butter-toasted pine nuts that set the whole dish off. A mound of fettuccine ribbons tangled with littleneck clams was already great, but the addition of finely ground house fennel sausage lent it porky depth and surprising spice.
In every case, though, Manganaro puts great ingredients into uncluttered but effective combinations, and that clarity is especially obvious with fish, like the red snapper served over the bittersweetness of roasted radishes ringed by reduced amaro. Or the sweet pickled peppers and bitter broccoli rabe puree that set off the grilled octopus. And then there was one of my favorite fish, turbot. Whole fillets were delicately poached in the seasoned "magic oil" atop buttery leeks from a friend's garden moistened in a saffron broth infused with more wild juniper.
For dessert, it's more of the same, handcrafted with a deft twist. Velvety crepes came rolled around a lemony fluff of sweet ricotta. Rich flourless chocolate torte was bound with ground pistachios. Pistachios studded one of the eggless Philly-style ice creams that Manganaro regularly churns to satisfying creamy texture. But it was the throwback scoop of teaberry, a minty wild herb from the Pinelands he tinted pink with a splash of beet, that I really couldn't stop eating. By the end, after a crema-rich espresso roasted to the restaurant's specs by the local Rastelli Market (where Venti was once a barista and roaster), we rose from our seats ready to leave.
But not so fast …
"Phil wants you to say goodbye before you leave!" says Venti, leading us, still unknown first-time customers, back to the kitchen in a ritual trek most all of his guests follow.
There, beyond the dishwashing station and around a corner, we found Manganaro all alone at his stove, happily cooking up the next round of plates beside a wall of dinosaur drawings in crayon: "By my son, Mr. Dinosaur," he said proudly, pointing to the art. "Hey, thanks for coming. Thanks for crossing the bridge!"
Honestly, the drive is no big deal, hardly more than a trip from Center City to northern Fishtown. But Park Place Cafe is the best excuse to pay a $5 toll I've found in years.