For the last two decades, Washington Avenue has been the industrial spine of some of the city's most dynamic neighborhoods. Around the old-school Italian roots that still persist in South Philly, a colorful parade of international flavors has bloomed — from the lemongrass draw of pho halls and Vietnamese markets to a roster of authentic Mexican taquerias.
And now, especially west of Broad in the 19146 zip code, the irreversible push of pricey new row houses is gentrifying Point Breeze to the south and the neighborhood to the north often called Graduate Hospital (even if the hospital no longer exists).
Is there a single restaurant that can somehow encapsulate all those varied communities and flavors in one space, and also jump start Washington Avenue's someday makeover from a warehouse row to a pedestrian-friendly Main Street worthy of sidewalk dining? Probably not.
At least, not yet. But if you squint through the roll-up garage-door walls that front the cavernous-yet-stylish dining room of the converted auto-body shop that's now Chick's, you can get a breezy glimmer of the al fresco possibilities. And the wide-ranging efforts of its kitchen don't shy away from trying to embrace the multi-culti chaos on its affordable menu, from its Italian core to some Asian-fusion dishes, tacos, retro comforts, trendy avocado toast, and two dozen craft beer taps worthy of any gastropub.
Mashed potato pizza? Mussels in pho broth? Falafel with Buffalo sauce? Korean BBQ duck wontons? It all sounds so potentially silly and confused — until chef Fred Ryan, a veteran of Lacroix, Tangerine, Moshulu, and Devil's Den, consistently exceeded my expectations with satisfying, scratch-cooked dishes in almost every case.
But the picture here is bigger: Is Chick's a heartfelt homage to the tasty patchwork of today's South Philly, or a folly in trying to be too many things to too many people at once? Maybe those things aren't mutually exclusive for a growing neighborhood that needs this kind of ambitious-but-accessible restaurant energy. I was definitely skeptical of its ambitious reach — and that's before I knew the backstory of the restaurant's name and ownership connections, which are inextricably linked to local mob history.
Frank "Chickie" Narducci, reputedly a top lieutenant to slain mob boss Angelo Bruno, was gunned down in 1982. Narducci's son, Phil, whose wife, Gina, technically owns this venture, named the restaurant in his dad's memory, though he insists he's making his own fresh start. Phil, 54, got out of prison early for good behavior in 2012 after serving 25 years of a 40-year sentence for racketeering. His life sentence for the 1985 gangland hit on South Philadelphia bookmaker Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso was overturned in 1997.
"We had a lot of heartbreaks, and I don't run away from it — I'm not ashamed of who I am," said Phil. "But the people I meet today can't believe the past I have. And I just want to leave it in my past and move on."
"We just got married, so this is a new beginning and a new chapter for us," said Gina, previously an administrator with String Theory Schools. "We want to make everyone feel like family."
That sense of hospitality was genuine as I saw an impressively diverse crowd settle into the casual buzz of this airy gray room, which was most recently an Asian produce market. Phil, the director of operations, is almost bubbly as he bounds from table to table in his black T-shirt. And the rest of the service team is friendly and outgoing, too, especially server Racquel Cedrone, who set a new world record in replacing a diner's fork from the moment she heard it clang to the concrete floor across the room.
The 24-tap beer list, which ranges from Highway Manor and 2SP to Chimay and Two Roads, is impressive for a place with enough big screens to pass as a sports bar. But the cocktails were surprisingly good, too: from the suave, barrel-aged Negroni, to the gingery bourbon of the Golden Age, and the seemingly endless stream of mojitos that fueled the jewelry-draped women at the next table, who were giving the Italian end of the menu — mussels, pizza, and brothy shrimp scampi — a no nonsense work-over.
Those are the safe choices here. And most of the other Italian specialties are solid to recommendable, from the meatballs baked with provolone to the excellent chicken Parm sandwich, layered with tomato gravy on a seeded "Nicky" roll from Liscio's that's been garlic butter-toasted, then spread with basil-ribboned ricotta, a particularly great $12 option. A tasty arancini special came filled with lump crab, bound by risotto.
The Bolognese was one disappointment, too creamy and with big clumps of meat. And the big menu of pizzas was just adequate by today's high standards — crispy-bottomed, but a little heavy on the cheese and sometimes bland (not enough truffle on the Truffle Shuffle). There were some occasional surprises — like the carbo-palooza of the Old Forge, layered with mashed potatoes, sour cream, and chive, which was like eating a pierogi on a pizza, and was so much better than expected.
Ryan excelled at such pleasant surprises as we explored a wider breadth of flavors. The cuminy slow-cooked pork shoulder carnitas was legit over simple tacos, with cilantro, onions, and a bright splash of salsa verde. I'm not sure the vinegar punch of Buffalo sauce is falafel's new BFF — but Ryan's coarse-ground chickpea fritters were so fresh and flavorful, I suddenly couldn't resist. All wontons should be filled with tender duck confit in tangy Korean BBQ sauce like these crispy lovelies.
The pho broth for the tender, clean mussels was tangy with lemongrass and blushing red with Sriracha butter. The Italian Market-style mussels with sausage and long hots is also appealing. Some big salads offered fresh alternatives: a luscious tomato-watermelon special with basil ricotta; a creamy burrata paired with heirloom tomatoes and corn; or the big BBQ chicken salad of pulled meat over greens with roasted corn, black beans, and chipotle ranch dressing, which was like a southwestern picnic in a bowl.
Some bigger plates for dinner, meanwhile, offer heartier meals at fair prices. A well-seasoned piece of salmon is pan-crisped over black pepper risotto with shaved Brussels sprouts, drizzled with sweet-and-sour saba, for $22. The meatloaf, a flavorful blend of beef, pork, and veal, is sliced into two hunks as thick as encyclopedias, then stacked over creamy potatoes in a rich mushroom gravy for $16.
In many ways, the juxtaposition of such homemade classic comforts with such a diverse roster of fusion flavors is reminiscent of the blue plate specials and something-for-everyone menus that were a staple of old diners — so many of which are now sadly faded — that used to define Philadelphia's neighborhoods. As the characters of Point Breeze and Graduate Hospital rapidly evolve and grow up around Washington Avenue, it seems Chick's has already taken on that role, and is doing it well, despite any preconceived notions of its unlikely origins.
Next week, Craig LaBan revisits Savona in Gulph Mills.