Come for the crab gravy, stay for the cannoli.
If you’re looking for a super-authentic South Philly Italian meal in the city these days—a classic chicken parm or meatballs in red gravy—you better know someone who’s willing to invite you over for dinner, or hope that Mr. Joe’s is open. (The little restaurant run by Vincent Termini, Sr. known for its authentic dishes is also known for being pretty loose with its opening hours.) Very soon, though, it’s going to be a lot more convenient to get your fix.
Michael Schulson and Nina Tinari are opening their eighth restaurant, and for their first Italian concept, they’ve partnered with South Philly’s resident experts—Termini Sr., along with his sons, Joey and Vinny Termini, the family behind the 97 year-old eponymous South Philly bakery known for its iconic, freshly-filled cannoli and other Italian pastries. Set to open in November, Giuseppe & Sons will house a luncheonette upstairs, and a sprawling, swank subterranean space, all serving up classic South Philly Italian dishes.
“Nina and I had the idea for an Italian-American spot, and as long-time friends of the Termini family, we felt there was nobody else to ask to join us on the project,” says Schulson. “We always talked about working together someday, and this just made sense and felt natural. Nina and I know how to run successful and sought-out restaurants, and they intimately know the dishes we wanted to see on the menu.”
Named for Vincent Sr.’s father, the 16,000-square-foot restaurant on Sansom Street in Center City was designed by the Schulsons in partnership with restaurant design firm Home Studios. The more casual café on top will be outfitted in stainless steel fixtures and black and white tile floors, and is meant to evoke a retro luncheonette, serving salads, hot subs, and other traditional Italian sandwiches and take-out lunch fare.
Like Schulson Collective’s Midtown Village restaurant Double Knot, where a staircase separates a cozy coffee shop from the sleek sushi spot below, descend the stairs into something altogether different here. A long, marble-topped bar greets guests, and the room is outfitted in a harmonious sea of greens, pinks, and navy, plus wood and tiled floors and brass sconces, adding up to an elegance that evokes another era. The vast room is designed with pockets of banquets and elevated booths, private dining rooms (including a ten-top that's separated from the din by a wrap-around curtain), and in the center of it all, a drop-down dining room.
“We wanted to create little moments, so you don’t feel like you’re just in one big room,” says Schulson. Down here, the menu will feature dishes that are inspired by the Italian kitchens of South Philly—think classic veal Milanese, orecchiette pasta with fennel sausage and broccoli rabe, braised octopus with cannellini beans, and crab gravy with housemade spaghetti.
The menu has been created and finely tuned over the last several months by chef Wesley Fields, with plenty of input from the Schulsons and the Terminis. While Giuseppe & Sons was under construction, the group has been recipe testing and tasting for the past eight months. On a recent afternoon, father and sons gathered around a table with the Schulsons to meticulously taste and rate each dish.
“The octopus salad is cold; I want it warm,” offers Schulson. When the crab gravy lands on the table, there’s an effusive and glowing praise. “Crab pasta, finally executed right,” says the restaurateur. The rest of the table is all but cheering. “This is a classic. You can’t find that anymore. I mean, when you talk about the South Philly Italian — that is the soul of it,” says Joey Termini, before turning to his brother and saying, “I feel like a kid in a candy store.”
Fields, who hails from Washington, D.C., was chosen among dozens of candidates for his impressive culinary skills, but had to learn the ropes of a cuisine that’s strongly enmeshed in this city.
“Wesley had to find his voice,” says Joey Termini. “Three tastings, we were still trying to find our voice. It was more along the lines of trying to be classical Italian, versus trying to be South Philly Italian.” He got some help with that from Termini Sr. and Schulson, and then it clicked. “From that point all, all the tastings were really passionate.” If you haven’t grown up eating these dishes nightly, it’s hard to get it, but this plate of crab gravy, expertly executed with freshly-made pasta, says that he indeed got it.
For their part, the Termini sons are optimistic, but understandably nervous in anticipation of opening their first big restaurant. “We run a bakery. How’s this gonna translate to a plated dessert?” says Joey. “We want to make sure we own up to our end of the bargain.”
When it’s time to taste desserts, though, spirits are high. Termini, Sr. lights up. This is their wheelhouse. Dessert plates decked with painted pink flowers—a nod to the dining rooms of South Philly nonnas—are topped with banana cream pie, ricotta and olive oil cakes, and the famous cannoli. But it’s the Pastiera di Grano, made with orange peels Termini Sr.’s team peels and candies in house in a 15 case batch, that everyone gushes over, sharing memories of eating this creamy confection at holidays and Sunday suppers.
“One of the things that was so attractive about working with Michael was that it’s not about the money, it’s about the experience, and the quality of the food, and the authenticity,” says Joey.
Soon, that South Philly authenticity will be available right in Center City.