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Lucio Palazzo on Year One at La Calaca Feliz

La Calaca Feliz was a big hit in 2012
La Calaca Feliz was a big hit in 2012
Photo: La Calaca Feliz

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

Lucio Palazzo joined owner Tim Spinner to open La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount at the end of 2011, and it became a huge critical hit. Palazzo, who first came to prominence cooking Mexican for Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook at Xochitl was a perfect fit for Spinner's first expansion after his original Cantina Feliz became a destination in the 'burbs.

Palazzo refined his cuisine and created a clutch of must-have dishes in a neighborhood that wasn't known for great restaurants. After being the surprise hit of 2012, what can Palazzo and Co. do to top themselves in 2013? Eater sat down with Philly's most-famous "Italian Chef Doing Mexican" to find out what their fans can expect in the future, and what stumbles they hit in their first 365 days in business.

When did you sign on to do La Calaca Feliz?
I think everything got done in October or November, but I had just left Xochitl in September. The timing was really good, all in all. I had reached out to them before that, but it was just talking. They had a plan of what they wanted to do from what was going on at Cantina Feliz, but the details were different for this restaurant, so there was quite a bit of work to do.

Was the changeover a challenge from the cuisine you were doing at Xochitl, or were you confident in what the outcome was going to be?
Actually it wasn't that bad. Any time you are opening a new restaurant it's going to be a lot of work no matter what you do, but luckily I had experience with the food they were going for and what they wanted to accomplish. And we had a lot of staffers coming from Cantina Feliz, which made it that much easier.

What were some of the challenges you ran across in that first year?
Well, the neighborhood is not centralized, so foot traffic is almost non-existent, so that was a little bit of a challenge. But, we still had a great first year. And getting diners to trust you and try the more out there dishes is always a challenge, but we started moving some dishes we thought would be a hard sell by the end of the year.

What were the strengths that set you guys apart?
I think our execution is our biggest strength, and we are constantly tasting everything coming out of the kitchen, so you know you're getting our best. I think we have the best chorizo in the city, too, which surprisingly was a tough sell at first. But, now we have three dishes with it on the menu. With the Mexican-American stuff, you know people will always be comfortable ordering it, but we're finding people are starting to get more adventurous. Oh, our ceviche is another bright spot in my opinion. And it's doing well. It could be doing better, but it's a decent seller.

How has the neighborhood responded to La Calaca Feliz?
They've been really supportive of us, and we've actually got a lot of regulars. We have some people who are at the bar every week, and some people who eat here almost every night, so they've been awesome.

You guys hit it big with critics right off the bat. Was that expected or were you nervous about the first responders?
It was expected, which I think is always the case. But, we knew we had a strong base since about 50% of the menu was on the menu at Cantina Feliz which did well with the critics, and we had a chance to refine what didn't work. But, I will say that we didn't expect so much praise so early, so that was a nice surprise. And it kind of validates the chances you take when you read positive response for dishes that are non-traditional.

So, what still needs to be refined at La Calaca Feliz?
Well, I'm about to head to Mexico on a research trip, and when I return, we're going to overhaul the whole menu. We're going to probably eliminate all but the absolute top sellers, and update the menu to reflect what's learned on the trip. So, that's a definite for the near future. Also, right after I return from the trip, we will be doing a dinner at La Calaca Feliz reflecting the dishes that I found most inspiring during my trip, so people should look out for that. We're actually planning on doing a dinner series like that throughout 2013, and that's going to be the big kickoff.

Will there be another restaurant coming from your team?
Well, we have the taqueria coming to Manayunk next year, but after that I can't say.

What about you personally? Will you ultimately look to open a place on your own?
I'm very happy with the family I have now with Tim Spinner and our team. I think every chef wants to own their own place, and sure, maybe in the future. But, I want to stick with Mexican cuisine, and it will have to be authentic. I am interested in the scholarly pursuit of Mexican cuisine. I don't know if the city would support it, but that's something I would like to do.

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La Calaca Feliz

2321 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia, PA