The Road to the 38: Serpico: a Mix of Pennsylvanian Traditions & Big City Flair

Bill Addison
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Serpico [Photos: Bill Addison]

Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.

Serpico's metallic-gray façade stands out on Philly's colorful South Street. The blocks around it house tattoo parlors, consignment shops, hair extension pit stops, and stores like Atomic City Comics and Lady Love, a "toy lounge." Among them the restaurant's iron-hued exterior looks almost ominous, like it fronts a mafia-run nightclub or a local headquarters for the Legion of Doom.

The area probably feels like home to Peter Serpico. He was David Chang's director of culinary operations and opening chef of Manhattan's Momofuku Ko before partnering last year with Philadelphia's omnipresent restaurateur Stephen Starr. And isn't this how Chang's empire started, in the East Village a decade ago surrounded by similar urbanity? It's apparent even from the outside, though, that Serpico is adapting to local culture: Valet attendants loiter outside the restaurant to park cars for $16.

Walk through a glassed-in foyer to the black box theater of a dining room: painted brick around the ceiling gives way to slick dark walls full of dinner and drink lists written in precise handwriting. Lighting is last-moments-of-twilight dim. A narrow, oblong wooden table near the entrance comprises the bar—cool design idea. On the opposite end of the space gleams the kitchen, a miniature steel metropolis where the cooks stride around the ovens and diners settle in around the 18-seat counter. Serpico floats among his crew, his eyes mostly down and his mouth set in concentration.

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Raw scallops in buttermilk

There's no better way to describe the food than Changian—a balls-out collision of popular American, Asian, and modernist seasoned with New Nordic and Italian. Serpico helped perfect the style; he has every right to serve it. In the warm weather order two dishes straightaway: lobes of sashimi-grade scallops backstroking through buttermilk, scattered with poppy seeds, and dotted with chive oil, and a calming bowl of dashi decorated with trompe l'oeil, including gelatinized cubes of crème fraiche resembling tofu and pea pods filled with tiny cucumber orbs.

Then home in on dishes that embrace Philly and Pennsylvania tradition. Serpico takes the idea of Chang's now-ubiquitous pork belly buns and switches out the major players. He brines, sous-vides, and deep-fries duck legs and nestles the crackly morsels in hot dog-shaped potato rolls from Martin's Famous Pastry Shoppe, a beloved and longtime bread supplier out of Chambersburg, PA. They form the centerpiece for a striking tableau on a chestnut-colored ceramic plate also set with a cup of pickles and a swirl of ruddy hoisin sauce.

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Deep-fried duck leg; Caper-brined trout with crab

Cope's Dried Sweet Corn, a century-old Pennsylvania Dutch product, is cooked and pureed to the consistency of smooth grits and used as a filling for ravioli. The pasta then gets dropped south of the border, landing in a saucy mélange of chorizo, sour cream, roasted onions, and hearts of palm chips marinated in lime. Fun, fun. But nothing beats a soul-revving bowl of filigreed crab dyed turmeric-yellow from pepperoncini, the pickled capsicums that adorn salads in Italian-American restaurants all over Philly. It adds the right vinegary smack to offset the crab, the caper-brined trout filets, and the smoked potato salad that lines the bottom of the bowl. (Lamb ribs soldered, via meat glue, to shoulder meat blazed with Sichuan chiles and soothed with charred eggplant and minted yogurt was a close second favorite.)

Desserts—yuzu semifreddo, a riff on rock road ice cream—felt gloomy for summer. I yearned for peaches or berries while spooning up an autumnal apple cake with warming flavors of charred apple sauce and brown butter. The restaurant needs its own Christina Tosi, the pastry whiz of the Momofuku clan.

So where does Serpico fall right now in the must-try Philly lineup? For locals, it certainly delivers some brassy edge to the dining scene, and the chef-owner's kitchen chops are undeniable; it warrants an outing. For visitors and newcomers, I'd say first make your way to some of the city's more homegrown celestials—like Zahav and Vedge—and then head to South Street to experience the curios of the latest New York transplant.

Serpico

604 South Street, Philadelphia
215-925-3001
website
Open for dinner Sunday and Tuesday - Thursday 5 - 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 - 11 p.m.
How much does it cost?: Smaller plates (out of which two or three would easily make a meal) $10-$18, larger plates $24-$32, desserts $9.
What to order: Raw diver scallops in buttermilk, deep-fried duck leg, fried maitake mushroom, Cope's Corn ravioli, Korean fried chicken wings, caper-brined trout with crab, lamb ribs.
What to drink: Cocktails fall right in line with modern tastes but don't push any boundaries. Focus more on the deftly edited wine list (around 40 bottles) heavy on the Old World varietals. Also consider a sake like the Kanbara "Bride of Fox:" Its surprisingly warm, nutty flavors will marry well with Serpico's cooking.

Email Bill at bill@eater.com and follow him at @BillAddison.