As restaurant guru Stephen Starr charges ahead with his empire-building in Philadelphia (and beyond), the newcomer garnering the most raves is Serpico—an unassuming shrine to chef Peter Serpico’s cooking, tucked between the tattoo parlors and head shops of South Street.
It’s a fitting stage for the modest chef, whose talents have always exceeded his thirst for the spotlight. It’s here, amid the blackboard-lined walls, that the quiet and fastidious Serpico makes dishes like sliced pig head with burnt onion mustard and deep-fried duck leg sandwiches for a crowd that’s grateful to have stolen him away from New York.
Reared in Laurel, MD, by his adoptive parents, Seoul-born Serpico started cooking at 15, “washing dishes and making and rolling dough” at an outpost of Ledo Pizza. But it was at the Belmont Conference Center—his first legit cook job upon graduation from Baltimore International College Culinary School—where he became hooked on the chef life. “I’ve always liked working. It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something,” he says. “My aha moment was when I moved away from everything I ever knew in my childhood to New York. It was for myself, my career, and nothing else.”
In New York, I was extremely irresponsible about every part of my life besides cooking. I’m starting to find more of a balance in Philly.
New York proved an ideal testing ground, as it allowed Serpico to cut his teeth in fabled kitchens like Lespinasse and Bouley. In 2006, he received plaudits as David Chang’s sous chef at Momofuku Noodle Bar, eventually becoming chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ko and director of culinary operations for Chang’s collection of growing restaurants. But suddenly, he decided to hit the pause button and “take a break from New York.” Philadelphia beckoned.
“My experience in New York was hard, but I enjoyed it. I was extremely irresponsible about every part of my life besides cooking. I’m starting to find more of a balance in Philly,” Serpico reflects. “It’s a very livable city with a small-town feel and the people are nice. We just want them to be happy when they leave the restaurant so hopefully they’ll come back.”
Here, Serpico discusses the dishes—from nostalgic apple pie to Tokyo-made dashi—that have inspired the small, clever menu at Serpico, quickly making it one of Philly’s most coveted reservations.
Gram’s apple pie
When we drove from Maryland to Chicago every year for Easter, my grandmother had a pie, served room temperature, waiting for us. She hand-peeled the Granny Smith apples with a paring knife and made the crust 100 percent by hand. It had a proper score on top to create a chimney for the steam to escape, and it was sprinkled with cinnamon and granulated sugar. It tasted like heaven. I don’t eat apple pie anymore because nothing can live up to this. (Photo: Smitten Kitchen)
Sally Serpico’s macaroni and cheese
My mom layered elbow macaroni with grated extra sharp cheddar and topped it with béchamel and paprika. This was one of two dishes that all six of us in the family—including four kids—enjoyed eating for dinner. We ate it religiously once a week with salad, but also for special occasions. My dad still makes this sometimes. (Photo: Cookipedia)
Momma Jo’s lasagna
Momma Jo, or Josephine Serpico, is my grandmother on my father’s side. She was an amazing Italian cook and made this lasagna with spicy Italian sausage and a lot of fresh fennel seed every year for Easter. It was amazing. I can eat more lasagna than Garfield. (Photo: Jamie Oliver)
Steamed crab in Ecuador
I was in Quito at a very simple restaurant in the center of the city, close to the bullfighting stadium, and we had steamed crab with butter and garlic. I ate crabs for three hours and everyone I was with hated me. (Photo: Mumsified)
Farm eggs on the Slovenian border
I was helping a chef with an event and we were staying on a horse farm across the street from the only Slovenian restaurant with a Michelin star, La Subida. They are a husband and wife team, and they were the most gracious hosts. There, Albert Adrià cooked me two farm eggs using Italian butter that was so close to burnt in a wood-fired oven. I ate them with country ham made at the restaurant and they were the best eggs I’ve ever eaten in my life. They tasted like love and humility. (Photo via The Braiser)
Steamed egg custard
This dish is inspired by Japanese chawanmushi. I love the texture and the subtlety. It’s topped with brown butter chicken stock, potatoes, cauliflower, mushroom, and caviar. It’s only on Serpico’s tasting menu now, but I will make it for people when they ask. (Photo: Yelp)
Sliced scallops with spicy buttermilk, poppy seeds, and chive
I first served this dish at Momofuku Ko with fluke. It was greatly influenced by a pounded langoustine with lemon juice and poppy seeds that I had at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Robuchon’s langoustine is better, but I like the textural difference between the creaminess of the buttermilk and the poppy seeds. (Photo: Flickr/Scaredycat)
David Bouley’s ocean herbal broth
This is David Bouley’s signature dish: seared scallop, crab, shrimp, and squid in kataifi, all in an herb-based sauce heightened with fresh clam juice, tomato water, lemon, a bunch of vegetable purées, and finished with herb oils. I can say that I moved to New York when I was 19 years old, two weeks after I tasted this. I never thought food was capable of being this good. (Photo: David Bouley)
Clam dashi in Tokyo
I forget the name of the restaurant, but it was a female Japanese chef named Masayo who made it. It was perfect because it was cold outside and the Pacific clam in it was tender, sweet, and the broth was a bit smoky and fishy. She served it to be drunk like a tea. (Photo: Japanese Food Report)
Sam Mason’s PB&J at wd~50
The beauty of it is that it was a pile of peanut-butter powder that had gone in the Pacojet and there was a scoop of Concord grape sorbet on top. That was it: peanut butter and jelly. This dish showed me that I know nothing about food. (Photo: ICE, First We Feast)