PHILADELPHIA STORY

Set in a former butcher shop in the melting pot that is South Philly, Fiorella is a temple to pasta and wine that celebrates both simplicity and authenticity. John Irwin pays a visit

This is the Philly thing. This is where it gets beautiful.” Kyle O’Neill, the sommelier of Fiorella in South Philly, is recounting the time in 2019 when their 220-pound, centenarian brass cash register was stolen from the premises during its transition from butcher shop to restaurant – the latest in a string of eateries opened in the city by Marc Vetri, the founding father of Philadelphia’s current fine dining scene. “Marc, being who he is on social media, was very vocal about it… The next day, two people found it at a pawn shop. Marc [didn’t ask any questions], he just wanted the register back.”

South Philly, as anyone from there will tell you, takes care of its own. This is the Philadelphia neighborhood of Rocky Balboa and the Italian Market, of famous cheesesteaks and sought-after Barbacoa, dotted with some of the most spectacular dive bars in the country. It’s a neighborhood where immigrants came – and still come – to get a foothold in America, its bandbox row houses first filling with the Irish, then the Italians, and then the Jewish, the Mexicans, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese.

There’s no place like it in all of America, not anymore; immigrants that came here didn’t so much assimilate as build their own mini-version of wherever it was they came from, stuffing their subjective histories into their small slice of the Philadelphia city plan. You’ll find taquerias standing shoulder to shoulder with red sauce joints. It’s overstuffed and wonderful, like an Epcot ride about mid-20th century American urbanity, art directed by the Safdie brothers. 

Parking is a nightmare. The streets are Swiss cheese. Walk down the street and it will smell very good, and then very, very bad, and then good again. On one corner, you’ll find a bar in the basement of a school uniform store, and on another you can grab a pack of paper-wrapped-and-still-steaming masa tortillas for $1.50. There’s a ramshackle resplendence to it all; a little dirty but also a little taken care of, and the neighborhood casually heaves with character and soul. It hasn’t really changed, and for that reason, it’s perhaps better than ever.

In the middle of all this sits Fiorella, a 14-seat temple to the alchemy of sauce and starch, churning out some of the best pasta in the country, all paired with a wine list that highlights underappreciated gems from all over Italy. Or, as Kyle puts it, “I like to have some of the underdogs represented on the list, which is what I think we are too.” This strikes me as very, well, Philly.

Meat and drink

“For me it’s a matter of feeling with a wine. It has a certain energy about it. I think that energy for me is when I can taste where it comes from.” Kyle O’Neill is talking about how he builds his wine list, which is given almost exclusively to native Italian varieties. “We focus on what locals would drink if you were in a specific part of Italy. Chef studied in Bergamo, so we have a big northern Italy focus.” In this case “Chef” is none other than Marc Vetri, a six-time James Beard semifinalist, and winner of Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2005. 

Kyle and I are chatting in an empty room above Vetri’s Fiorella, which opened in 2019. And, while it’s the acclaimed chef’s most recent opening, to call it “new” would be a misnomer. Fiorella has stood for 130 years, its first 125 operating as a butcher-shop-cum-South-Philly-institution. Opened in 1892, the store was run by three generations of Fiorellas before that big brass cash register rung up its last customer in January of 2018. The building went up for sale later that year.

As it happens, Fiorella was just down the street from where Vetri’s father grew up, where “everyone came to get their sausages in the summer.” And so, in 2019, Vetri purchased Fiorella to breathe new life into it in the form of an all-pasta restaurant, getting approval from the Fiorella family to keep the name… and the register.

“It’s a noodle, it’s a sauce – no frills,” Kyle explains. “We’re not hiding behind anything here, we’re just trying to do simple food and do it really well.” Almost all of the items on the menu are five ingredients or less. The bottles he chooses for the list share that same ethos, steering towards low-intervention wines that speak of place. During a recent dinner at Fiorella, Tornatore’s Etna Bianco brought ocean spray freshness when paired with mozzarella carrozza; a glass of Elisabetta Foradori’s crunchy, energetic Teroldego from Alto Adige was an excellent foil to rigatoni with sausage ragú; a bottle of Bisci’s Senex Verdicchio di Matelica 2015 proved Italian white wine’s age-worthiness against corzetti with sorrel pesto; a glass of late harvest Moscato del Molise from Di Majo Norante should not have worked with honey ice cream, but it did, and I’m still thinking about it.

While the wine list steers natural, it retains a deep respect for clear-as-bell-tone typicity and exhibits a preternatural understanding of flavor pairings. These aren’t wines masked by rusticity, nor do they overtake the food with big flavor. When dining and drinking at Fiorella, you’re reminded, as Da Vinci famously pointed out, that simplicity is really just another word for sophistication.

Time warp

Nearly everything in Fiorella remains unchanged: the dumbwaiter, the floor scale, the ceramic pigs lining the walls, the painting of Luigi Fiorella above the coat hooks. There’s even the chest freezer, complete with a chamber above it where dry ice would be loaded in the days before refrigeration. A wooden sign carved by Dan Fiorella still adorns the side of the building. The only things that Vetri added were the cooktop, a marble counter (laid on top of the old butcher’s bar), and, somewhat improbably, a purple Chihuly chandelier – a gift from a friend in Venice – that brings the space a touch of whimsical elegance, and which the staff has dubbed “Ursula.”

This respect for the space of the old butcher shop is striking. There just aren’t a lot of places like this left; and the adherence to history here is subtle, but inspiring. At Fiorella, it’s about more than their product. They have gone to great lengths to fold into the character of South Philly; and really, into the memories of everyone who had Fiorella sausage on their grills in the summer. For all our conversations around authenticity and heritage in the world of food and wine, too often, we lose sight of the importance of the terroir of our neighborhoods, the people and history that make them unique. But Fiorella proves that you can, at once, represent both what South Philly was, and also what it can be.

Fiorella creates some of the best pasta in the country, paired with a wine program that highlights some of the most under-appreciated gems from all over Italy

Other places to see in South Philly:

South Philly Barbacoa

Chef/owner Cristina Martinez was just named Best Chef Mid-Atlantic with the 2022 James Beard Awards. Beyond turning out some of the best Mexican food in the country, the undocumented Martinez has become an outspoken immigration activist.

Kalaya

This BYOB Thai restaurant from chef/owner Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, a  2022 James Beard Semi-Finalist, was previously named the “Best Restaurant in America” by Esquire Magazine. 

Dante & Luigi’s

You can’t talk about South Philly without mentioning the red sauce Italian-American food that has defined the neighborhood for decades. Dante & Luigi’s has been open since 1899, and it remains a time capsule to a different era of fine dining.

Any dive bar 

Go a few blocks in any direction and you’ll find more than one local watering hole serving
“Citywides,” a Philadelphia tradition of offering a beer-and-shot special for under $5. The bars in South Philly were not built to be dive bars, they became dive bars – and that’s a crucial difference.

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