Like most young restaurant couples who've worked their way up in the industry, Chris D'Ambro and Marina De Oliveira imagined someday starting a special place of their own.
In theory, it was a place like Ambra, the intimate modern Italian nook they plan to open on South Fourth Street within the next couple of months.
The daisy-shaped ravioli stuffed with creamy homemade ricotta and sweet peas, scattered with salty nubs of crispy lamb bacon, have me excited for that project.
So does the bowl of thin spaghetti glazed in a bisquey green garlic sauce that was amped to an oceanic punch with pureed soft-shell crabs and chili spice.
But Southwark - the restaurant where I devoured those dishes - had to come first. Because without Southwark, the larger bar and bistro at Fourth and Bainbridge that happens to be attached to another vacant space just large enough to accommodate 16 seats and a soigné tasting menu, Ambro wouldn't be a possibility.
But Southwark is a different, more complex animal altogether. It was someone else's restaurant, to begin with, and had become so ensconced in the Manhattan-drinking hearts of its fans during the 11 years Kip and Sheri Waide ran it that it had transcended the notion of mere ownership to become a fixture of Queen Village itself.
This is not to say Southwark was necessarily a runaway financial success. But it was beloved by those who appreciated its role in helping jump-start Philly's cocktail revolution, and for those who enjoyed eating at the long mahogany-colored bar Kip built, where the farmhouse platters laden with house-made charcuterie and seasonal delights crafted by Sheri and other notable chefs (Nick Macri, then Sam Jacobson) were far better than you'd expect from most taverns.
In fact, D'Ambro and De Oliveira, who met while working at Talula's Garden, were among those fans. They were also among the many who did not realize Southwark was more than just that bar, with a slender dining room in back facing a bricked-in courtyard that can be among the lovelier alfresco dining options in the city.
So when the couple bought Southwark last fall, after returning from a year working at a resort in Mexico, they had to embrace the considerable task of caretaking someone else's legacy before forging their own. Mostly, they have succeeded.
The renovations have been light, with stucco removed from the bar and some neutral tone colors brightening the dining room. And the bar's lively local character and warmth has been preserved. With 29 seats filling that front barroom, it's still the energetic focal point of the experience.
And, thankfully, the cocktails remain excellent, even if the list, divided by era and overseen by beverage manager Jarrod Williams, has trended toward more elaborate creations than the classic-minded focus of Kip (and barman George Costa's) rye-focused bar. There is a beautiful balance to drinks like the refreshing Bainbridge St. Bully (rye, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol), the rummy, peachy, and nutmeg-dusted Philadelphia Fish House Punch, the absinthe-kissed Negroni riff called Lucien Gaudin, and a Oaxacan that melds mescal smoke with the raisiny tang of Pedro Ximénez sherry and a bittersweet finish of chocolate bitters.
The menu, meanwhile, shows as much ambition as ever toward of-the-moment ingredients and handcrafted flavors. The usual hummus is turned a vivid spring hue with green chickpeas. Smoky mackerel is whipped into pâté, chilled beneath a jellied layer of horseradish cream in a neighborly nod to the smoked whitefish salad across the way at the Famous Fourth Street Deli. A beef tartare, zippy with mustard and capers, showed off the luscious quality of Painted Hills beef, the softness of its minced bits glossed with a farm yolk then dusted with a spicy snow of shaved fresh horseradish root.
D'Ambro indulges his whole-animal instincts with a slow-stewed pig's head turned into a crispy patty for a tasty slider slathered with spicy 'nduja salami mayo. The house charcuterie platter shows off his terrine skills (if not yet cured meats) - but also some edges that still need polish. I loved the flavor of pork terrine, with hazelnuts and a hint of bacon smoke, but the texture was a shade too coarse and dry. Likewise, the house mortadella studded with Castelvetrano olives tasted great, but the meat's emulsion was slightly separated and greasy. The chicken pâté flavored with green chickpeas and maitakes was my favorite.
D'Ambro was at his best when focused on seasonal bounty, like the perfectly crisped soft-shell crab over a pickled ramp tartar sauce with shaved raw asparagus and escabeche-pickled mussels that cut right through the richness of the crab's buttermilk crust. A meaty fillet of tilefish was beautifully seared for the night's market catch over a roasted onion fumet studded with tiny turnips and artichoke hearts.
The D'Ambro dishes that impressed me least were the ones that tried to do too much. I loved the asparagus-ramp custard ringed with morels, favas, and peas - until he plopped a deep-fried egg on top that looked like a falafel had landed.
But nothing said overkill quite like the giant pork shank special that came wrapped inside a football-shaped layer of bread pudding which itself was wrapped in caul fat. Why the FrankenShank?
"Why not?!" suggested my guest, eagerly diving into the core of tender flesh. And she had a point, though I found the whole thing as heavy as a sledgehammer for spring, as the stuffing also came with sides of ramp-greened mashed potatoes and a crock of Bloody Butcher grits in gravy.
A lack of finesse held back a couple of the pastas, too, including another version of that fine spaghetti that was overcooked and overwhelmed by a strangely creamy sauce with monkfish piccata. Some gnocchi with braised pork and dabs of house ricotta and pistou would have been excellent had the gnocchi been half the size.
Sometimes the best parts of an entrée were its sides. The seared gem lettuce with morels upstaged the $31 Painted Hills strip steak, which I would have liked better if it hadn't been presliced - a fuss I never like. Likewise for the roasted chicken, which was good enough. But it was the schmaltzy Castle Valley farro with buttered ramps and maitake mushrooms I really wanted more of.
I could eat multiple helpings of the excellent house-baked bread and churned butter cleverly rolled in vegetable ash. Pastry chef Russell Johnson's rhubarb almond tart was also a delight, as was the dense chocolate cake layered with ganache and salted caramel ice cream. Some of the sorbets, though, suffered from strange textures. The suddenly trendy pavlova should also have been more crisp on the exterior to counter its taffylike center chew - even if the diplomat cream and warm strawberry jam were delicious.
Mastering such details is part of what separates a good neighborhood spot from a great citywide destination. And it isn't easy. D'Ambro and De Oliveira are off to a solid start. But as they prepare to launch their ambitious second act in the tasting-room form of Ambro, they'd still do well to first make sure they've made their homage to the Queen Village locals as good as it can be at Southwark.
VERY GOOD (two bells out of four)
701 S. Fourth St, Philadelphia, 267-930-8538; southwarkrestaurant.com
This beloved Queen Village standby for good cocktails and thoughtful seasonal cooking has transitioned nicely from one talented couple to another. New chef-owner Chris D'Ambro and his partner-fiancée, Marina de Oliveira, have done a fine job preserving the friendly neighborhood character and craftsmanship of drinks in the bar while updating the menu with Italian accents (previewing the modern Italian project opening soon in their adjacent space). D'Ambro sometimes tries to do too much on his plates, but the focus on good ingredients and earnest scratch cooking usually pays off with satisfying results.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Charcuterie board; house bread and butter; smoked mackerel pâté; pig's head slider; green chickpea hummus; beef tartare; ricotta and pea ravioli; spicy spaghetti and clams; asparagus custard; market catch; roast chicken; rhubarb almond tart.
DRINKS Cocktails remain a highlight of the Southwark experience, though they've grown more elaborate than former owner Kip Waide's classic-minded list. Still, the polish is there in drinks like the nutmeg-dusted Philadelphia Fish House Punch, the smoky-chocolaty Oaxacan, the refreshing Bainbridge St. Bully, and absinthe-tinged Lucien Gaudin. Try the "dealer's choice" for a wild card inspiration. The beer list is small but appropriately local and crafty (Stoudts; Pizza Boy; Old Forge). The small Euro-centric wine list with a dozen glass choices is affordable, but not especially exciting.
WEEKEND NOISE The narrow dining room can hit a boisterous 89 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Dinner entrees, $21-$35.
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible.
Street parking only.