On a balmy Wednesday eve in the Italian Market, Pascual "Pat" Cancelliere was perched on a vacant sidewalk produce stand trying to tune a guitar he had no business touching. For one thing, it was clear he had no idea what he was doing, as I borrowed the dissonant instrument from his hands, quickly whipped it into tune and plucked a little ditty. I was more concerned, though, about my dinner: Why was the chef sitting out in front of his restaurant at 7:30 p.m?
"What, no food tonight?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," he said, with a woeful headshake toward the glassy front of his empty new dining room. "Too much food."
And then, as he realized that my posse of hearty eaters was heading his way, he grabbed the guitar and bounded in across the tiled entranceway that spelled the restaurant's name (and address) in mosaic: 943.
Fire up the skirt steak grill! Give mama's empanadas their final crisp! Stir the chimichurri; let those flavors fly!
Nothing is humbler than a chef without an audience. But few things are more worth savoring than the gratitude of one seating his first table of the night.
A heat-charred patty of house-made chorizo, tangy with cumin and with a blush of chile heat, arrived homestyle over asparagus with an oozy pan-fried egg. Cubes of Argentine Parmesan and soppressata salami piqued our appetites alongside strips of pickled eggplant and snappy green olives. A plate of empanadas, their delicate fry-bubbled crusts made by Cancelliere's mother, Dora, were filled with a trio of stuffings - piquant ground beef and olives; cuminy moist chicken; creamy Crucolo cheese and Italian ham.
And those were just the "welcome" freebies. Cancelliere had recognized my guest, former Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols, whose empanada-cued empathy is widely known. But the premeal nibbles had been a pleasant start to my previous visit, too, when a plate of lightly fried smelts launched us on a feast of zesty flavors, from savory char-grilled steaks to handmade pastas and sausage.
Inspired by his Argentine-Italian heritage (though mostly the Argentine part) Cancelliere is cooking the simple but soulful dishes that remind us that rustic cooking can still resonate. With the recent demise of Hoof+Fin, this is the only place to get a true taste of that particular South American swagger, where simply grilled skirt steaks, offal, and short ribs need little more than an herbaceous splash of garlic-and-citrus-tanged chimichurri to tango.
His unfettered embrace of the authentic reminds me vaguely of what KooZeeDoo did for Portuguese flavors, and Kanella for Cypriot peasant cuisine - albeit far more limited in its scope and ambition.
That could change and evolve as Cancelliere finds a wider clientele for this BYOB. Though I fear the roar that would result from a crowd in this spare but pleasantly renovated space, whose cream-colored walls, hardwood floors and butcher-block tables stoked a 90-plus decibel din from just one raucous table of 14 (BTW, happy birthday Sheila!).
That it is rarely so full, though, is curious - as much due to the lack of nighttime foot traffic in the Italian Market (unless you're Villa di Roma) as it is Cancelliere's own fault. He's even worse at marketing than at playing guitar. It took him only four months to launch the restaurant's website - not bad considering the two years it took to open the restaurant while he worked at Restaurant M.
Its February debut marked a homecoming of sorts for the Cancellieres. Pascual's dad, John, an Abruzzese raised in Argentina, operated two Italian restaurants in the Italian Market area - Cafe Longano (now the Wishing Well) and the Butcher's Cafe (now Monsú) before he passed away.
943 makes some nice Italian dishes, too, as evidenced by sheer pappardelle ribbons that came tossed in a brothy basil-kissed ragu of Swiss chard and shiitakes; or the tender spinach ravioli that would have been perfect had they not been swimming in so much Gorgonzola cream. (As if there were such a thing as too much Gorgonzola cream.)
But Cancelliere's real focus is on the South American flavors. And it's clearly in homage to his father, who also once operated the Buenos Aires-style El Gaucho in Old City, and frequently took his young son on 2 a.m. jaunts to the docks in Tioga, where they'd trade Marlboros and bottles of Cutty Sark with Argentine ship captains in exchange for jugs of malbec, sausages, and cheese.
With his mother in the prep kitchen, and his wife, Dawn, plus four of their seven children helping, the best reasons to visit this family affair are certainly on the plate.
There's an oozing circle of grilled provoletta cheese dusted with shaved chorizo. An addictive ensalada Russa, its chunky potatoes tossed with peas and carrots in a mustardy homemade mayo, tastes like a picnic on the Pampas. The sublimely tender octopus comes two satisfying ways - sliced into long ribbons with fava beans, fennel, and paprika-tinted lemon; or sliced into rounds with tomatoes and oil-cured black olives that have a Mediterranean piquance.
My favorite starters, though, were nods to Argentina's earthier side. If you've eaten sweetbreads only fried, the grilled ones here are a minimalist delight, the heat-charred edges of tender organ meat soaking in both grill smoke and the tart zap of chimichurri. Cancelliere's blood sausage might be the best morcilla I've ever eaten. Lightly spiced with paprika and cumin, the filling gains extra texture from ground beef and pork studded with raisins and almonds and remains almost fluffy and moist, like some exotic flourless chocolate cake. Only the garlic shrimp, a little bland, disappointed.
For entrees, which mostly top out at a reasonable $19, there are some worthy sidetracks beyond red meat. Aside from the pastas, we ate a thick and flaky slice of lightly egg-battered hake over lemon butter, a fitting tribute to merluza, Argentina's favorite fish. The moist chicken Milanese is a cutlet of home-style comfort with an addictive side of garlic- and parsley-scattered fries.
But beef is 943's sweet spot - simply grilled over coals that smoke with wood trimmings from Green Meadow farm, then plated next to green beans and fingerlings sauteed with molten duck fat. True to style, this kitchen properly opts for cuts that showcase flavor over tenderness - my favorite being the skirt, followed by the just-chewy-enough (but smallish) short rib, and then the more expensive N.Y. strip (nicknamed "bife de chorizo" because of its shape, but slightly misleading because it doesn't come with sausage). While they initially seemed plain, a basting of chimichurri (with a swig of malbec) was all the tang they needed to come to life: straight-to-the-point beefy bistro savor.
I can only imagine they'll taste even better once Cancelliere replaces his flattop with a wood-fired grill that's on order. (Though given 943's usual pace of progress, I won't hold my breath.)
The desserts are limited, but as homespun as the rest of the meal, with a decent flan, a moist chocolate torte, and my favorite, the "alfajore" lemon crisp cookies that sandwich generous dabs of dulce de leche caramel like wonderful Argentine whoopee pies. I was still licking the caramel from my fingers when I headed out the door just as Cancelliere hustled from his kitchen to say farewell to Rick. The room had a few more customers now, and he seemed happy.
"Hey, thanks for coming, and thank your friend," he says to Rick, "for tuning my guitar."
943 S. Ninth St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Pascual "Pat" Cancelliere taps the rustic flavors of his Argentine-Italian heritage with homey empanadas, handmade pastas, and a grill-centric menu that lets simply prepared meats, offal, and house-made sausage shine with little more than chimichurri. Such zest deserves a bigger audience, but they'll come with a caveat: This pretty but spare Italian Market room gets noisy faster than you can say "Tango!"
Menu Highlights Empanada trio; house-made chorizo and blood sausage; grilled provoletta; octopus; grilled sweetbreads; ensalada Russa; grilled meats with chimichurri (skirt steak; short ribs; strip); hake with lemon butter; pappardelle special; lemon crisp cookies with dulce de leche.
Alcohol It's BYOB. Think Argentine: Bring a zesty red malbec to go with the steaks, a floral, delicate white torrontes to complement the seafood.
Weekend Noise A horrific echo from all the hard surfaces can approach triple digits (98 decibels) when even half full. Needs to be addressed. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
If You Go Dinner Wednesday and Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday until 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Entrees, $16-$24 (Mixed grill for four, $60)
Reservations not required.
Street parking only.