by r. eric thomas
I recently got into a debate about what the true boundaries of Philadelphia are. Well, actually, as with most conversations about the nature of Philadelphia, it wasn’t so much as debate as it was one person making loud declarations and me saying “What? That doesn’t make any sense. You’re crazy.” My friend Andre holds fast to the belief that the only true Philadelphia is South Philly. “Anything above Washington isn’t Philly!” he shouted. “What is it, then?” I asked.
“It’s the Delaware Valley.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense. You’re crazy. What about West? I think Will Smith would contend that he’s from Philly.”
“Is he from South Philly? Otherwise he’s not from Philly.”
I love Philly, all of it. I’ve lived in South Philadelphia for 8 years, and I doubt I’ll ever leave, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a Philadelphian. I think it’s one of those birthright things. South Philly, with all it’s peculiarities and eccentricities, is a country all its own. It has its own language, its own rules (park wherever you want; savies totally apply), and its own national holiday: Mummers Day. For a couple of years I lived across from Potito’s and was greeted every Sunday morning by the delightful aroma of freshly baked almond cookies mingling with the garlic and oregano of homemade gravy on my neighbors’ stovetops.
South Philly has a unique, familiar feel that, thankfully, has not been resistant to newcomers, interlopers and change. If you ask Andre, the borders don’t expand, but they’re not closed either. Nothing makes that more clear than the recent boom in business on East Passyunk Avenue. The diagonal street presided over by his majesty, the King Of Jeans, has seen a sharp rise in new businesses of late. Many of them are decidedly un-South Philly. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just different. The sometimes-pricey additions like Scandinavian BYOB Noord and the upscale Fond, which offers foie gras and escargot, stand in stark contrast to the neighborhood’s roots.
Thankfully, the boom in business on EPA has given birth to the delightfully classic Noir. A warm, friendly bistro serving Italian-French fusion, Noir is the best of old and new South Philly.
When you sit down in the dining room at Noir, you’re likely to be reminded of your grandmother’s house. Well, I don’t know your grandmother so I could be totally off on this. Besides, the mention of grandmothers tends to bring to mind lace doilies and moth balls, which is not my intention. The dining room at Noir, with rose-colored walls dressed in large sepia-toned photos of a happy Italian family, has the family feel with a nouveau Philly sheen. Atmospherically, everything from the cherry-wainscotting to the collegial staff to the music—a mix of 80s classics and Motown—is homey and perfect.
Noir is the brainchild of chef-owner Marco DeCotiis and partner, Donnamarie Motto. DeCotiis, who is Italian by birth and a Montreal native, brings the two aspects of his heritage together beautifully in a menu populated by Italian standards with French-Canadian touches. I started my lunch with a spinach salad topped with pears and shaved cheddar and dressed with a maple Dijon dressing. Chef Marco stopped by the table and pointed out that the maple in the dressing was one of the menu’s many welcome Canadian touches. I wanted to ask him if I could have a glass of the dressing to go, but I refrained because I pretend to have class.
I mulled over the entrée possibilities while chatting with Marco and Donna about their charming love story and their plans for the restaurant. “We’re changing with the response that we’re getting from people,” Donna told me. She noted that they were still tinkering with the space and the acoustics, but had recently brought in their first comedy event and a speed dating night. “We have a following,” Marco added, “Old school and new school.”
Time and again, the co-owners came back to the local focus and family roots of the restaurant, something that is apparent and welcome in every aspect. Donna drew my attention to the drink menu, filled with variations on 40s- and 50s-era cocktails, mostly made with the house-infused cherry vodka. She also noted that as temperatures rise, she’d be introducing a spiked water ice cocktail, made with product from Mancuso’s across the street. “We’ve become friend with everyone on East Passyunk Avenue,” she said. “I don’t view it as a competition. Everyone has their own clientele; we help each other.”
The menu is full of delights, including Montreal Sandwich, featuring meat smoked in-house, but I finally decided on the decadent-sounding Linguine Raffeala with shrimp and crab in a tomato lobster cream. My waitress warned, “it’s addictive, but you won’t be able to finish it.” Challenge accepted, madame! The dish arrived moments later; it was huge and rich but surprising light. I devoured it like it was my last meal on Earth. I could tell my waitress was impressed, or frightened. Either way. The Linguine Raffeala is one of those amazing dishes that’s so good it’s hard to imagine ever getting anything else on the menu. This, of course, is counter intuitive since it clearly shows that Chef Marco can do no wrong. Next time I’ll probably try the Pappardelle Bolognaise or the Ghnocchi al Telefono, but I’ll get a Linguine Raffeala to go.
I finished my meal with a truly phenomenal lemoncello marscapone cake. Everything about it was heavenly. It was so light that it seemed the epitome of the phrase “melts in your mouth”, yet had a tart sweetness that lingered long after it was done.
If the nation-state of South Philly has a national food, it’s clearly Italian. The abundance of Italian options in this region is unparalleled. Is there such a thing as too much Italian in one place? Not when it’s this good and comes from an even better place. Noir has all the time-worn traits of classic Philly with just enough fresh ideas to keep this transplant coming back.