Craig LaBan's best of 2017
The best thing our food critic ate, his favorite server, and the best new restaurant of 2017.
In a year of reviews, these stood out.
Best new restaurant
In a year that celebrated the growing sophistication of suburban dining, it's little surprise that 2017's best new restaurant was not in Philly. True, Hearthsides co-chefs Dominic Piperno and Aaron Gottesman drew on their time at Vernick (and Zeppoli and Fat Ham) to harness the wood-fired magic of their memorable New American menu. But this ambitious BYOB owned by Piperno and his wife, Lindsay, is a complete package, from the gorgeous room to the polished service and inspired food, and a compelling reason for everyone to visit Collingswood.
Dish of the year
Too many of our old food traditions are fading, but Joey Baldino cooked with the angels of Italian South Philly on his shoulders this year at the Palizzi Social Club as he breathed fresh life into the homey favorites of his youth. No dish haunted my dreams like his spaghetti with crabs, a tangle of snappy strands in gravy so deeply steeped it was a zesty tomato tidal wave of sweet and briny crustacean. Not a member of the club? You can cook like a son of the Italian Market, too — because we've got the recipe.
Rising star chef
"Rising son chef" is more like it, because Jesse Ito learned the art of Japanese cooking from a master, his father, Matt (formerly of Fuji in Haddonfield fame), who's behind the scenes at Royal Izakaya. Jesse has stepped into his own spotlight there with a one-man omakase show at a cloistered back counter where eight lucky diners get to watch him create some of the most exquisite sushi tasting menus this side of Tokyo.
Best updated classic
How to remake a revered institution all your own? Chad and Hanna Williams got married in the kitchen of Friday Saturday Sunday the moment they completed a total renovation of the restaurant renaissance fixture. But it's what they did afterward — reimagining the bi-level space with a beautiful downstairs bar and airy upstairs dining room for Chad's cutting-edge cuisine — that has allowed them to write a compelling new chapter for a generation that believes Philly's real restaurant revolution is happening now.
Server of the year
Betty Woods and I haven't always been close. "I don't like Craig LaBan, because he'd never come to a place like this," she said, before realizing (much later) that I'd been sitting across the counter from her at the Mayfair Diner. We've since patched it up. And now it's impossible not to admire a consummate professional who's worked 46 years serving "the real people" despite the fact her husband, Ed Mulholland, sold the Northeast landmark more than a decade ago: "It's so easy when I do a job I am passionate about. You can do your job for the money, but if that's all you care about you'll never make it."