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Steve R.

Visiting for Four Days in June - Russet, Mr. Martino's Trattoria, Le Virtu, and ... What Else?

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We're going to be in Philly for 4 nights in early June and plan to go to Russet, Mr. Martino's Trattoria, helm & Le Virtu.  Any comments about these places would be appreciated, as would other recommendations to replace any/all.  As you call tell, this is a pretty eclectic list, ranging from farm to table to Philly red sauce Italian to upscale-ish regional Italian, so we're open.  We're intentionally not going to some of the major well known spots (like Solomonov's) & would love to hear about some hidden or lesser known places.  Thanks.

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I’ve been a resident of Philly for the past two years. I got to know Don when I lived in DC from 2001-04.

I’ve not been to any of these 4 places, although I am most intrigued by Russet. Given I’ve passed the others over, I’d suggest you replace them with one of the following restaurants I can recommend: Townsend, ITV, Royal Sushi & Izakaya, Res Ipsa (not red sauce but some of the best pasta in the city!), Sate Kempar, Friday Saturday Sunday, Royal Boucherie, Vedge, Little Fish, Perla, Stargazy (British pie shop - notmopen for dinner yet - only lunch). Happy to extrapolate!

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1 hour ago, liam said:

I’ve been a resident of Philly for the past two years. I got to know Don when I lived in DC from 2001-04.

I’ve not been to any of these 4 places, although I am most intrigued by Russet. Given I’ve passed the others over, I’d suggest you replace them with one of the following restaurants I can recommend: Townsend, ITV, Royal Sushi & Izakaya, Res Ipsa (not red sauce but some of the best pasta in the city!), Sate Kempar, Friday Saturday Sunday, Royal Boucherie, Vedge, Little Fish, Perla, Stargazy (British pie shop - notmopen for dinner yet - only lunch). Happy to extrapolate!

Wow, Liam, thanks for this info - if someone asks you to expand, please also let us (translation: me) know which of these you'd recommend if you only had one, or perhaps two, chances to have at them.

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Thanks liam.  I'll look into your recommendations -- some I'd heard of, many not.  Always good to have 1st hand info.  By the way, Russet does sound good & I look forward to trying it & writing up what we think afterwards.  Le Virtu has been around for quite awhile, but recently changed chefs so I'm not sure what I'll find.  It was recommended, over the years, by very trusted food/restaurant folk.  We travel to Italy (mainly Northern Italy) a bit and it looks like it might be someplace we'd appreciate.  We'll see.  We got helm from a Visit Philly web site that had an article on notable BYO places and it seemed interesting.  We may well change it up.  And, lastly, the only reason we chose Mr. Martino is that my wife's last name is Martino (turns out that theirs isn't - it was taken from a chef that the owners met & loved in Italy - we asked) &, being from Brooklyn, NY, we always love trying local family run red sauce places when we travel around the country (if you're ever in Richmond, Va. try Edo's Squid).  Again, thanks.  I'll be looking into your list and possibly changing our plans accordingly.  Much appreciated.  

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On 5/3/2018 at 8:47 PM, DonRocks said:

Wow, Liam, thanks for this info - if someone asks you to expand, please also let us (translation: me) know which of these you'd recommend if you only had one, or perhaps two, chances to have at them.

Townsend or Friday Saturday Sunday for upscale. ITV for food/cocktails/energy. Or Res Ipsa for food/pasta - it’s a coffee shop by day so ambiance is somewhat lacking. It also is BYO.

Eater has recently added Le Virtu to its list of 38 essential Philly restaurants, so good things may be happening there. All 4 of your choices, Steve, actually are on that list. https://philly.eater.com/maps/38-best-philadelphia-restaurants

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I’m getting old.  It never occurred to me that eater has a Philly section.  As a(nother) aside, I was at a K.Derby party yesterday & a friend who lived in Philly got a kick out of hearing that we’d reserved at Mr. Martino, as he once lived down the block & liked going there for non-destination local eating.  He especially liked the owners and the general friendly ambience of the place.

eta: just looked at the eater listing and like what they’ve said about all 4 of our current choices.  Think we’ll stick with them.  However, if this trip goes well, I foresee a return as several other places seem very attractive as well (FridaySaturdaySunday especially).  We also got the names of a couple of others yesterday that sound interesting.

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Chiming in more than a few beats late:
(I don't live in Philly and of the few places I've tried, I mostly agree with liam)

Of the "known" places, I like:
- Vedge/V Street (loved V street for lunch but it's brunch/dinner only now)
- just about any place in the Zahav group (except Federal donuts, not a huge fan; really liking Goldie right now, even though it's really pita and salad from Dizengoff plus falafel). Also, Dizengoff NYC vs PHL: Philly has proper plates and more comfortable seating and will usually add an extra pita for free but NYC has 1/2 off happy hour deal
- Vernick
- Serpico
- Fork (High St has an outpost in NYC)


OP asked for hidden gems:
- I would have maybe suggested the recent $50 Sunday prix fixe dinner option at Le Cheri, but it's closing this weekend.
- El Compadre in the Italian Market area for lamb barbacoa tacos on the weekends; check their social media as at some point they will be moving to a larger space.
- There's a place actually named "Hidden Gem" that opened a month or so ago in Chinatown, on the left as you walk about 1/2 block north from the gate. The food is only ok, but it's a cheap snack if you have a hankering for HK breakfast sets.


Other notes (is there an option to collapse text?):
- Bibou: Opinions on this site have been mostly so-so/negative but it's still a favorite of mine. They moved to a tasting menu only format a while ago and now accept credit cards, still BYOB. The pig trotter & foie en crepinette pops up sometimes as a special and is a must-order (my/your cardiologist might disagree).

- Double Knot: Basement level takes reservations; you check in upstairs (street level) at the back. The menu has a little overlap with the sister resto Sampan next door. Overall not my favorite style of fusion food - too loud and flashy. Space is buzzy but also moody and dimly lit, including the bathroom (not OK in my book). If I had to go back, I would do the chef's omakase, which is more interesting and better paced than the "pick 10" tasting menu option, where dishes come out as they are ready, which always means too quickly.

- FriSatSun: Fantastic. I had written it off because the name and the logo font somehow evoked the image of some Starr mediocrity like Parc, but it's legit great. Only been there once and it and Res Ipsa are my top priorities for return visits. Dining room is upstairs so I'm not sure how they handle guests with mobility issues (table downstairs? hidden elevator?). Minor quibbles: their signature bread is these paper thin crackers (lavash?) stuck in honey and butter that shatter and make a mess (holding it the wrong way?) and their desserts are not as exciting as the savory side (this could apply to most places).

- Laurel/ITV: I feel I should *love* the food but it's always only been *like*, can't explain why...

- Perla: I've only tried the regular menu, not the traditional feast they offer some nights. The first few meals were really exciting; the last 2 have been a bit less so, possibly from poor ordering. Some dishes I feel they've tried to refine/fancify too much. Coursing can be a bit weird too - in some cases it would be better if they just dropped everything on the table at once.

- Res Ipsa: The much-hyped breakfast sandwich is skippable. My one dinner was great - the tasting menu is a ton of food, although they might not have scaled it down for a singlet diner. Pastas are excellent and the roast chicken travels well for breakfast the next day. Added bonus: it's one of the closer places to the train station (I usually walk everywhere so it can take almost an hour from the Passyunk area)

- Royal Sushi: The bar/izakaya side is nice spot for drinking/late snacking - the late night chirashi (available after 10 or 11pm?) is a pretty good deal. I don't need to go back to the sushi counter; maybe it's good/excellent for Philly but is not worth a meal slot if you're visiting from a city like NYC.

- Russet: Only 1 visit; thought the food was good but not exceptional, but I'm not be the best judge of farm to table places. The space is interesting - it's the lower floor of a townhouse apt building and laid out like a train car (the men's room is all the way in the back).

- Sate Kampar: Friendly and earnest; sometimes the enthusiasm exceeds the food though. I don't have much basis for comparison for Malay food (beyond possibly adulterated versions in Singapore). Prices have ticked up a bit since they first opened.

- Vetri: Has anyone been lately? I had an amazing meal there years ago but put it down as a special occasion place and never had the right excuse to go back...
 

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We did a lot of walking from our hotel (Alexander Inn, on 12th & Spruce) during our 4 day stay.  To the Art Museum, to Old Town, to the Italian Market and up/down Broad St during their celebration.  All in all, Philly reminds me a lot of Brooklyn -- in a good way.  At any rate, we stuck with 3 of our 4 above choices for dinner & enjoyed all of our meals:

Russet: as guanabana says above, "good but not exceptional".  I liked my food more than Ginny liked hers but both of us agreed that everything was fresh, well prepared and tasty.  I can't say that I understand some of the chef's choices (spaghetti chitara was prepared with good veal liver, but in a tomato sauce - we both thought that oil/butter/garlic with some onions would've been better), but the sfumatta was excellent & the arctic char was nicely prepared.  I'd say that this was typical of the "New Brooklyn" places that we've seen dotting our home area over the past 10 years.  Good enough, nice price point, BYOB is so nice, but the food flavors had no "zing".

Mr. Martino's Trattoria: hard to summarize.  This is very good home cooking and we'd go back if it was near our home.  The owner went out of his way when we arrived and sat down to make sure we knew that it was "nothing fancy" & that his wife was doing all the cooking to order.  Good self assessment.  We decided to eat at the bar area (BYOB place - no alcohol license so this was a "bar" in name only) and had nice chats with the owner, the waitstaff and a customer or two.  From the baked ricotta w/dried sausage, to the veal tortelloni w/gorgonzola tomato sauce, to the lemon tart -- all was very nicely done & portioned well (medium sized, but enough).  The place was charming, with things like a rotary dial phone, old fans, photos and antique store decor.  Everyone was friendly, the room full of regular customers.  Its more than worth going & we're glad we did.

Effie's Greek Restaurant: we decided not to trek up to helm & instead went around the corner from our hotel to this place, recommended by a neighbor at home.  Again, an informal not fancy home cooking type of place that did everything well with no frills.  Warm pita, great cheese, fresh salad, nice chicken, etc. -- all easily enjoyed, as was the comp'ed dessert.  Another BYOB.

Le Virtu: absolutely not what we expected.  The web site & friends' recommendations had us thinking that this would be a darkish old skool type place with an upscale wine list and tablecloths.  Nope.  A bright, airy place with informal, friendly service and both a server & a middle aged S. Philly (50s? 60s?) owner who spent time talking about Italy & the neighborhood with us.  This was the most Brooklyn type place for us & we really enjoyed it.  A bottle of Aglianico ($45 - reasonable) and a Sunday fixed price meal ($35pp) that included 3 courses (anything on the menu) plus cookies (each course smaller than would be served off the regular menu).  Cheese/egg meatless "meatballs", mixed fried vegetables as apps were both excellent.  The pastas were exceptional & the highlights of the meal.  As is usually the case, the protein course was okay - I had lamb, Ginny had pork, both were good but nothing to write effusive statements about.  We'd definitely return.

Only one lunch of note (we really eat heavy at dinner, so we try to not eat much at lunch - if anything at all): we were in Reading Market and had a pastrami sandwich at Herschel's Deli.  Not bad at all.  Not quite Katz's but very nice.  And they have Dr. Brown's sodas.

A good trip.  Thanks for the recommendations.  We'll keep a lot of them in mind for next time.

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7 hours ago, Steve R. said:

We did a lot of walking from our hotel (Alexander Inn, on 12th & Spruce) during our 4 day stay.  To the Art Museum, to Old Town, to the Italian Market and up/down Broad St during their celebration.  All in all, Philly reminds me a lot of Brooklyn -- in a good way.  At any rate, we stuck with 3 of our 4 above choices for dinner & enjoyed all of our meals:

A good trip.  Thanks for the recommendations.  We'll keep a lot of them in mind for next time.

Lots of cities are like the outer boroughs and none are like Manhattan with a ridiculous multiple of high rise office space compared to any other city.  I forget the details but both midtown and Wall Street each have something like at least twice the office space of the few cities with the next most, such as Chicago or DC.

Philly is nice.  Congrats on a great trip.

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