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.