Gather ’round. Marc Vetri has a story to tell about Fiorella.
“There’s a story behind everything. The story is just as important as the food,” the chef says, on the phone to discuss his new South Philly restaurant inside a former butcher shop near the city’s historic Italian Market. “There’s the Fiorella story — reviving the name, making the sausage again. There’s the story of the small pasta bar, because nobody has opened anything like this. The Venetian chandelier, from one of my best friends in Italy, that you think would make it feel too high-end but it doesn’t. The cash register saga. All of it.”
Stand outside Fiorella, opening very soon at 817 Christian Street, and it seems like there isn’t a neighbor who walks by without stopping to peer through the wide front window and inquire about the next chapter. “Will they still sell sausage?” more than one passerby asks.
Italian immigrant Luigi Fiorella first opened his butcher shop in the 1890s. Three generations, 125 years, and countless handmade pork sausages later, Dan and Trish Fiorella decided it was time to close the doors and put Fiorella’s Sausage, long a neighborhood staple, up for sale.
Meanwhile, when he wasn’t at his landmark Italian restaurant Vetri Cucina or busy opening the new Vetri Cucina in Las Vegas, Vetri was playing around with the idea of a small, casual restaurant that didn’t serve much besides a handful of pasta dishes.
A couple years back, he had hosted a “pasta pop-up” upstairs at Vetri in the second-floor space usually reserved for private events, posting on social media in the morning that he would be cooking noodles that night — first come, first served. People started lining up before 5 p.m. and were willing to wait as long as it took. He did it again, with the same reaction. The spontaneity (along with the promise of pasta from a renowned chef) was a draw. “Folks really liked it — hearing about something on social media and running over there. Being in the moment,” Vetri says. More than 20 years after he opened Vetri Cucina, after he wrote cookbooks, won a James Beard Award, started a nutrition-focused nonprofit, opened several more Philly restaurants and threw everyone for a loop by selling them to retail giant Urban Outfitters, Vetri wondered if the loose, spontaneous feel of the pop-ups could be translated to a restaurant.
Once the Vegas Vetri was up and running, the chef had time to flesh out the idea and look for a location. His father’s family had lived near Fiorella’s. It felt like the right fit. He bought the little butcher shop, and got the OK to use the name.
Step inside the narrow South Philly space now and, as Vetri says, it feels like he didn’t change anything. There’s the dumbwaiter, once used to hoist meat and now decorative, with an espresso machine brought over from Cucina tucked beneath it. The countertop is new but the wood base is the refurbished original. The floors weren’t changed. The ceramic pigs and the sign thanking customers for their patronage (“To serve you is a real privilege”) were already there. The 100-plus-year-old brass cash register engraved with “Luigi Fiorella” was there, too, though it almost wasn’t: In an odd side story, the register was stolen, and then returned after Vetri posted on Instagram and Facebook asking for it back. (Perhaps the thief realized Vetri has enough devoted followers to make successfully selling an antique from his restaurant unlikely.)
The most eye-catching piece in Fiorella, a gorgeous purple Venetian glass chandelier, is new to the space, but it’s not new. Marco Rossi, a close friend of Vetri’s from when they worked at the same restaurant in Italy in the early 1990s, had the chandelier in his restaurant until it closed last year. Rossi shipped it over in six huge boxes. It took hours to assemble.
The chandelier hangs over the L-shaped counter, which has room for a dozen stools. Along the wall, a couple of two-top tables are going in. That’s it. Open Thursday to Sunday, no reservations, no elaborate tasting menus, just Vetri and chef Matt Rodrigue tossing noodles behind the counter and serving them up.
Rodrigue, a history teacher before he switched careers, comes to Fiorella from Vetri Cucina, where “he got very into making pasta,” Vetri says. “He did a lot of the upstairs events, where you have to be more of a leader, and be more interactive with the guests, and I think that’s his forte. I could just sense that he was ready for this.”
They plan to make a few appetizers, six or seven pastas, and a dessert or two. The pastas will be a mix: maybe one hand-rolled, two stuffed, one long noodle, a short noodle, an interesting shape, prepared with fish, meat, or vegetables — “whatever is in season, whatever we find at the market,” Vetri says. The Fiorellas’ fennel sausage recipe will be used for a ragu. Their liver sausage and cheese sausage will probably wind up on charcuterie plates.
Pressed for more menu details, Vetri is nonchalant. “I don’t know, we’re gonna make some pasta,” he says. “You’ll come in, have some noodles, have a glass of wine, a little something for dessert, and then leave. It’ll be fun.”