In a Manayunk desperately trying to show the world it's not just about Kildare's Irish Pub anymore, and St. Joe's kids partying on Main Street, it was a scenario that seemed heaven-sent; in fact, almost too good to be true.
Right near Jake's in the heart of town - possibly poised to reinvent the heart of town - three small miracles suddenly materialized in the space of weeks.
They'd been heralded for a couple of years, then one was stalled by zoning fights over closing hours. But here they were, finally. The first was Agiato Bread Company, which had locals trekking down from Umbria Street in the Manayunk hills for a "stick," also known as a fresh baguette.
This was just one of the specialties produced nightly by baker Jim McAleese, whose pedigree went back to baking with Robert Bennett, the storied Le Bec-Fin pastry chef, and included stops at Balthazar in New York and, lastly, Parc, the brasserie on Rittenhouse Square.
The bread was first sold from a window in the bakery, along with the salt-crusted rolls and rustic ciabatta-like Italian loaves. But when its companion enterprise - the Main Street Market - opened a few doors down in the 4300 block, the bread migrated there, poking from baskets and shelves, a vision of Paris on the Schuylkill.
The Main Street Market was the second epiphany. On a street whose grocery business had disappeared in the rush of clothing stores and imported-gift shops, beer halls and cafes, it was welcomed like a long-lost cousin.
At last, here was a place not simply to buy world-class bread - its skin a woodsy mahogany (not blond), its interior stretchy (not cottony), its tips charred black as a puppy's nose - but fresh pears or canned San Marzano tomatoes, two-pound rolls of Amish butter or chorizo and cheeses from the deli case.
So it came to pass, less than two weeks ago that the third blessed event occurred: Agiato paninoteca and wine bar, which had been delayed for a full year in the squabbles over closing hours.
If there was a crowning jewel, this was it. The chef was Joe Scarpone, 39 now, late of Sovalo (now closed) in Northern Liberties. To lovers of grown-up Italian food in a genteel, unhurried setting, it was surpassed only by Vetri as one of the city's finest dining rooms.
Scarpone is a Drexel Hill boy. But he'd earned his stripes at Tra Vigne, the California wine-country landmark. He'd worked for 10 months after that at Nancy Silverton's transformative bakery-sandwichery, Campanile, in Los Angeles.
His panini menu here was inspired by her crunchy crusted breads and soulful stuffings - Gruyere, grilled onions and Calabrian chili; prosciutto, truffled leeks and walnut pesto; roasted eggplant, buttery crescenza, and almondy romesco.
Each one, on Jim McAleese's incomparable breads, seemed better than the last. And with a hearty ribolita (al dente white bean, black kale, and toasted bread soup) and a pleasant Côtes du Rhône (a half bottle for $16), no warmer-hearted lunch or simple supper could be found on Main Street.
The developer, Rich Rivera, could not stop talking about the trifecta and other projects he has teed-up in Manayunk - an addition to a nearby Thai restaurant, a craft beer bar, and a barbecue place called Rubb.
Scarpone, his partner in the Agiato piece of the puzzle, was just as upbeat, showing off the adjoining storefront that had become available during the zoning delays, offering a venue where he'd re-create some old Sovalo magic - his "forever braised meats," tender gnocchi, and succulent lamb dishes.
Then two days ago something happened. The details aren't clear. But Scarpone, citing discomfort with the financing of the projects, said he was pulling out, probably within weeks.
Rivera conceded there'd been "tension," but he said he had chalked it up to the stress of the long wait to open.
Even with Scarpone leaving, he said, Agiato and the bread company would remain in business: "The show," he said, "will go on."
But without its leading star, the miracle on Main Street will likely never burn quite as bright.
Makes 6 servings
About ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup each diced onion, celery (1/4-inch dice)
1/2 cup diced carrot (1/4-inch dice)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2-ounce piece of prosciutto (optional)
Gray salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups packed roughly chopped Tuscan kale
8 cups chicken stock, or canned low-salt chicken broth
1 8-ounce can cannellini beans
2 ounces tomato paste
1 bay leaf
2 cups cubed Italian bread
Unfiltered extra virgin olive oil
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1. Heat ¼ cup of the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat until hot. Add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and prosciutto, season with gray salt and pepper, cover pot. Cook slowly until very tender but not colored, about 10 minutes.
2. Remove the lid and add the Tuscan kale. Season the kale with salt and pepper and return the lid to the pot until the kale is cooked down and wilted. Add the stock, beans, bay leaf, and tomato paste, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer the soup for 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, cut the bread into large croutons, toss in extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toast the croutons in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes until crisp and golden.
4. When soup is done, turn off the heat and add the toasted bread. Cover the pot and allow the bread to bloom for 10 minutes. After the bread has broken down, "reboil" the soup, adding more stock if necessary.
5. Serve the ribolita with a generous drizzle of the unfiltered extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano Reggiano over individual portions.
Per serving: 353 calories, 11 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, no cholesterol, 700 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.EndText