After several years, two false starts and a tiny, last-minute setback, Il Pittore, the modern Italian restaurant from Stephen Starr and his longtime director of menu development, Chris Painter, opens tonight. The two-story, 80-seater features a slightly casual vibe downstairs with a large communal table and wooden counter for drop-ins, and a sophisticated, but not stuffy white-tablecloth dining room upstairs. Painter’s menu presents original, contemporary approaches to classic Italian cuisine, inspired largely by the chef’s travels through Italy’s cities and countryside towns. An emphasis is placed on his housemade pastas, but dishes like a potted foie gras served with herbed pizelles and Lambrusco jelly, as well as a slow-roasted suckling pig offers some unexpected twists. On the eve of its opening, Grub caught up with Painter to learn more about the restaurant, its dishes and the inspiration behind both. Keep reading to see what he had to say.
What went into making this menu?
My objective was to do modern style food, but to keep it firmly rooted in classic Italian food.
So you see modern twists on the menu but its still done with a really strong Italian base.
How much different is this restaurant that you’re opening now compared to what you had in mind a year ago when you were planning on going into the former Ansill space at Third and Bainbridge streets?
Third and Bainbridge was going to be a little more neighborhood-y, a little more rustic than what we’re doing now. Obviously I adapted to the space. This space is a little more airy with more natural light. I thought it could be a touch more modern than what we had planned for the old Ansill space.
Is the same true for when you were briefly flirting with the old Deux Cheminees space?
Deux Cheminees was going to be a little more classic than what I’m doing here. That’s what the space lent itself to. You’d walk in there and it was like this beautiful old house with chandeliers and things like that. So I was thinking something a little more classic would work there.
How does the vibe here translate to the menu?
I’m happy doing this style of food because it takes some chains off that you might have in those other two spots. Here I think I can do some more modern twists and it fits in perfectly. I don’t think I could do that at either of those properties.
Are you happier with where you’re going now?
I am, definitely. I like to experiment, and I think this space and this approach will allow me to do that more.
When you say experiment, are talking about, like, molecular gastronomy stuff?
I’m definitely not a molecular guy by any means. It’s not my thing at all. I understand its place, and I have nothing against people doing it. Food can be very subjective. It’s for some people, but it’s just not a thing for me.
Last year you guys were saying that Il Pittore would be a casual restaurant with accessible price points. Now we’re talking upscale and white tablecloths. Do you think this shift can be used as a bellwether for the industry?
I think so. Upstairs is like that, but down here (on the first floor) it’s still pretty casual. There’s no tablecloths. You can walk in here by yourself, dressed casual and eat down here and not feel out of place.
When I first came back to the company (Starr Restaurants) three years ago, Stephen (Starr) and I were going to do something very high end and much smaller than this. But about a month after I got back, the economy collapsed. So doing a high end restaurant at that point wouldn’t have been very smart.
Even with the restaurants we were opening — like Pizzeria Stella and Frankford Hall — people were spending less money. But I think we’re seeing a trend now where people are coming back and willing to spend more money. Everything that everyone’s opened in the last three years has been very casual, very low price points. Looking at trends in New York — where every trend in the world starts — you’re starting to see higher price points come back and people are looking for a little bit more of an event when out dining.
Do you worry that some people here may not be ready for that yet?
Well, you can come in here and grab a seat at the counter and have, like, a crudo, some pasta and two glasses of wine without breaking the bank.
How much traveling and research did you do prior to opening Il Pittore?
I spent close to a month in Italy. It was originally going to be, like, two weeks, but it ended up going longer, which I didn’t argue with.
Where did you go in your search for inspiration?
I flew into Rome and worked my way north, north central and northwestern Italy. I spent time in Rome, Florence, the Tuscan countryside, Bologna, Param, Modena and then to Piedmont and Turin. From Turin I went to east to Milan. I had extended my stay already and thought I was going to come home, and Stephen called me and wanted me to check out Naples and the Campania region. At that point, I was like, “I’m coming home.”
What did you gather from that trip?
What I brought back was a better understanding of pasta textures. You go over there with the idea that everything is going to be super rustic, but there’s some more modern restaurants, or restaurants doing a more modern take on things, in the big cities and some of the small towns. That was a little surprising.
Does your menu lean towards a particular region or is it more of composite of what you experienced?
It’s not region specific. I will say that there’s a concentration on Northern Italian. That’s what I like to eat. But as you can see from certain dishes, there’s some Sicilian things, some things you would see in Puglia or Calabria.
Il Pittore, 2025 Sansom St., (215) 391-4900