Prolific as he is, a savvy restaurateur like Stephen Starr doesn't leap into the abyss of a new restaurant unless he senses a certain need, or, as he put it in the case of one of his latest projects, Il Pittore, "an energy and usefulness that's good."
In his empire's early days, when the city's dining canvas was more spare, the needs were more obvious to a man with a nose for the dramatic trend, be it splashy Asian fusion, nouveau Moroccan, comfort food, or upscale pizza.
Deciding to go for the porcini-decked bruschetti, subtle-but-cushy decor, and extruded pastas in game-meat ragus of an upscale Northern Italian restaurant in a difficult economy - in a town (not to mention a block) already bursting with Italian options - sounds, by comparison, like a curious call. But useful has taken on different meaning for Starr Inc. in recent years. As interest in theme restaurants fades, a push to shine a light on specific talents, from Robert Aiken at Dandelion to Aimee Olexy at Talula's Garden, has been at the core of Starr's latest ventures.
And the primary "usefulness" of Il Pittore may simply be the desire to keep one of his most valuable talents, longtime corporate chef Chris Painter, in the company fold.
"Are we goin' to do this restaurant, or what?" Painter recalls asking Starr last year, exasperated after working on his sixth company restaurant in three years. The chef behind Tangerine, Angelina, Stella and Frankford Hall, who also touched at least six others, had seen this script before, when Starr opened a steak house (Barclay Prime) instead of the showcase he'd promised Painter, causing him to leave for a few simmering years. Painter's return came with a pledge that this time would be different.
"This is something Chris has earned and deserved," says Starr, who has made Painter a partner in the restaurant and given it his name (Pittore is Italian for "painter"): "I want what Chris wants."
But does Philadelphia?
As one of the city's most talented chefs, Chris Painter can cook for me any night. It remains to be seen, though, if there's enough of an audience to make it up the floating wood staircase, once Noble's, to the second-floor dining room of Il Pittore. There are still details to untangle, but the rewards are evident. There's none of the period-piece nostalgia decor that defines Starr's other Euro concepts (like Parc), leaving the rustic chic of dark rafters pierced by skylights, red leather banquettes, backlit wall mirrors, and flattering table lights to convey understated sophistication rather than flash.
The focus, then, falls squarely on the inventive dishes inspired by Painter's 24-day reconnaissance trip to Italy.
That's not much time for true immersion, but Painter shows yet again his knack as a quick study with this four-course menu (does anyone do three anymore?) that reveals polish and surprising soul. (Though he'd be just as comfortable doing French or Japanese.)
Crisp rounds of lamb sausage, aromatic with cumin, nutmeg, and clove, come over lentils and slow-cooked tomatoes with fennel pollen. Fresh cod tinted mahogany with light apple-wood smoke sits over saffron potatoes whipped with house-salted, garlic-poached cod. Artichoke soup goes from earthy to briny with just a few shavings of pressed tuna bottarga roe.
Making salumi in-house was the plan until city officials told Painter his newly constructed $7,500 charcuterie room (off-site in the old Blue Angel) couldn't be used while that space isn't operating as a restaurant.
Fortunately, his fresh pastas met no such obstacle - and they are among the restaurant's most exciting dishes, with rarely seen shapes and combinations that are alone worth the visit. Tiny semolina gnocchetti pasta shells for the malloreddus come in a vividly steeped crab and tomato gravy, drizzled with sea urchin cream that adds both richness and a deeper marine tang. Toothsome fiddlehead-shaped squiggles called gramigna cradle ground duck-meat ragu stewed with pancetta, figs, and wine, then dusted with bittersweet chocolate shavings. Quill-shaped garganelle tubes were tossed in a buttery white wine ragu of sausage seasoned with anise seed ("more herbal and peppery than licoricey fennel," our excellent waiter, Kevin, said, correctly).
Zipper-edged pappardelle ribbons mingle with wild boar Bolognese fragrant with cinnamon and a swelling cayenne spice. There are stuffed pastas, too - fold-over plin filled with braised short ribs; delicate tortellini plumped with lobster over creamy dabs of burrata cheese and black truffles. My favorite was also the most subtle, the hand-stamped corzetti coins with raised wagon wheels and ferns, tossed with a soulful stew of goat, the tender, gamey meat in a tomato gravy with chile oil.
Painter's kitchen wasn't flawless. The paccheri pasta tubes with seafood were boiled too long, and collapsed. The swordfish steak came with an appealing smoked-tomato chickpea broth, but was dry. The 14-ounce rib eye was also overcooked (closer to "medium" than the requested "rare"), dimming an excellent cut of dry-aged beef. I also loved the concept of his foie gras mousse, but the savory pizzelles were too delicate for spreading, and the wine jellies were not quite intense enough. The gorgeous crudos, a pristine trio of snapper, tuna, and scallop, needed a squeeze of citrus.
There were far more successes, though, to compensate. The octopus was both tender and delicately crisped over arugula puree and the zesty pickle of baby peppers. The meaty orata fillet with minced olives and fregola sarda was like tasting the Mediterranean. The rosemary-scented lamb shank came over mashed potatoes tweaked with subtle hazelnut warmth. But the other braised meats were the real showstoppers: amazingly tender veal cheeks over earthy buckwheat polenta topped with marrow butter and blood-orange marmalade; and a slow-cooked suckling pig and Tuscan kale and pear mostarda, the meat practically melting beneath its cracker-crisp skin and eliciting an actual "wow."
I had the same reaction when I bit into the hot ganache center of pastry chef Vita Shanley's clever chocolate bomboloni. Her moist lemon pudding and pistachio tuile-tiered crème brûlée Napoleon weren't bad, either.
"Wow" was also my response - but not in a good way - to the typical Starr markups on the wine list. The 200-plus bottles cover all the major Italian regions, with high-end classics (Gaja, Giacosa) as well as some good choices under $50 (such as Feudi di San Gregorio's Rubrato), and worthwhile wines by the glass (Ferdi Garganega; Paitin Nebbiolo). But with the nearly triple markups (and no easing on high-end bottles), you'd do better to buy a bottle of La Spinetta Barbaresco for $62 at the State Store nearby on Chestnut Street, pay Il Pittore's $35 corkage fee, and still come out $103 ahead of the restaurant's $200 price.
At moments like that, the future of the city's great Italian BYOs, such as Porcini and Melograno across the street, still seems assured. And yet, after some inspired meals from Painter in the comfort of Il Pittore's intimate bilevel space, I also agree with Starr: Giving one of Philly's most proven chefs a stage to finally call his own is useful and good, indeed.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.