Sunday Supper Is a Trip to Italy at This Philadelphia Restaurant
On Sundays in Philadelphia, Fiore’s procession of pasta begins: sagne e fagioli—wide strips of pappardelle with Parmigiano and stewed cannellini beans—then creamy gnocchi carrati, made with pecorino and pancetta, and finally cannelloni all’abruzzese, in which hearty braised lamb is rolled in delicate swaths of noodle. The pastas—which arrive between antipasti and secondi courses—showcase the cuisine of Abruzzo, and are part of a running series that explores the regions of Italy, from Veneto to Sicily.
In a city known for its red gravy Italian restaurants—those that deal in comforting (and delicious), old-school Americanized dishes bathed in tomato sauce, like spaghetti and meatballs and veal parmigiana—all-day café Fiore, opened in January by wife-and-husband team Justine MacNeil and Ed Crochet, represents a new guard. (Don’t worry, though, there’s room in the City of Brotherly Love for all great Italian food.)
The couple came via New York City, where they met at chef Tom Colicchio’s Craft. Crochet was the chef de cuisine there, while MacNeil was most recently running the 15-person pastry team at Del Posto in Chelsea. They relocated to Philadelphia for Crochet’s new job at Starr restaurants, and to be closer to family in New Jersey and central Pennsylvania, but soon after landing here, they decided to open their own restaurant.
The 78-seat space they found meant operating a much bigger restaurant than they had imagined, but this one came with a liquor license—in Philadelphia, a notoriously prohibitively expensive acquisition. Plus, since it had been an Italian restaurant (of the red gravy variety) in a former life, there was already a kitchen and dining room that didn’t need much work. They bought some equipment on eBay, including a sheeter for rolling out dough, and a world-class gelato machine.
“The majority of top kitchens use it, because if you take care of it, it lasts forever,” MacNeil says. “And it produces the best product.”
The gelato she makes would qualify as the best product. Sold in scoops for dessert during the dinner service, and available as pints to go during the day, flavors range from vanilla to late summer fruit with corn and cinnamon toast crunch. The Italian frozen dessert isn’t the only standout sweet at Fiore, though.
While at Del Posto, MacNeil worked with Gina Nalbone, who left the upscale Italian restaurant to do a stint at Sqirl in Los Angeles, before her former coworker persuaded her to move back to the East Coast to become Fiore’s sous chef.
In her new role, Nalbone makes pastas and other savory foods, but also leads the dessert and pastry programs, turning out classics like olive oil cakes and pistachio cornetti, as well as some fresh versions. There are ricotta cookies the chef makes using an updated version of her grandmother’s recipe, bomboloni piped with orange cream and drizzled with cranberry glaze, and a morning bun, which sounds simple, but its taste—the dense pastry rolled in cinnamon, sugar, and crushed anise seeds—will stay with you long after you leave the neighborhood. (New Yorkers had access to Nalbone’s pastries in October, when celebrated Brooklyn bakery Win Son held a Fiore pop-up. Crochet worked with Win Son’s co-owner Trigg Brown at Craft.)
For inspiration to help create Fiore’s foods, MacNeil, a self-described nerd, turns to history. “I had every book I could find about pastry, everything about Italian desserts,” she says. “Ed was buying the books in Italian, and I was translating them on the subway ride home. I love finding the root of something, and figuring out how we make this very old-school thing appeal to [modern diners].”
So Sunday pasta tastings are also a way for the couple to explore that Italian culture and past. Each week, they write a history of the three pasta dishes they’re making, then pull out a map of Italy in the pre-shift meeting as a prop for explaining them to the staff. “We talk about what’s produced there, why they make the pasta there, and what ingredients they use, and then we go into depth on the dishes,” MacNeil says. “They start to hear more about the region, and it starts to connect the dots.”
Also on the menu: antipasti such as kalbi short ribs with fermented porcini vinaigrette and rich mushroom toast with sesame butter, contorni (including a pudding-like gnocchi alla Romana), and entrées for two, like black tea–smoked duck. And just like dishes from an Italian nonna, almost everything is made from scratch.
Meals at Fiore finish with scoops of gelato, or something more intricate, like migliaccio, a Neapolitan lemon-ricotta pie. (MacNeil and Nalbone will notice if you skip dessert.) And then another parade starts—this time with digestivi. Led by general manager and amaro aficionado Thaddeus Dynakowski, Fiore’s collection of after-dinner drinks is unparalleled in the city. If you ask, Dynakowski will walk you through his favorites.
It’s not one of Philly’s traditional red gravy spots, but both locals and visitors love it. “I think the best compliment we ever get,” says Crochet, “we’ve had Italian people in here, from Italy—and a number of them have said, ‘You get the taste of Italy,’ which is awesome.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Inside the new Star Wars attraction at Disney World: ‘Rise of the Resistance’
—Why cookbooks are still worth buying
—The 2019 food trends we hope carry over to 2020
—Why the owner of Jameson and Absolut has been buying U.S. alcohol brands
—Fortune writers and editors recommend their favorite books of 2019
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.