In mid-2019, the space was taken over by lifelong chef Joe Vargas and reopened as South Philly Italian Kitchen.
In 2018, Bacio, the modest Italian BYOB that had been at 311 West Mt. Pleasant Ave. for many years, closed its doors. Not long afterward, the restaurant reopened in a much bigger property at 700 Bethlehem Pike in Erdenheim, where Fingers had been before it, then Roberto’s and then two more restaurants that lasted about as long as the time between shampoos.
Meanwhile, Bacio’s former location, across the street from Goat Hollow, another venerable Mt. Airy landmark that is now Mt. Airy Tap Room, was vacant for about a year. Then, in mid-2019, the space was taken over by lifelong chef Joe Vargas and reopened as South Philly Italian Kitchen.
The BYOB’s interior is spartan. It will never get a photo spread in Gourmet magazine, but the food is — you guessed it — South Philly Italian, and the prices are almost too good to believe. Most entrees are $18 or $18.50, and no entree is higher than $22.95. Some appetizers in upscale downtown restaurants are higher than that. And the prices have not changed since South Philly Italian Kitchen opened four years ago.
I must say that I never expected “Kitchen” to survive the pandemic, but I am glad I was wrong. In fact, it was recently named the number one Italian restaurant in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill by voters on the Mt. Airy Nextdoor website.
“We never closed one day during the pandemic, which actually helped us greatly with takeout,” said owner/chef Vargas, 57. “That was absolutely crazy. Sometimes there were so many takeout orders that we ran out of food and had to close early. Our best sellers are the homemade meatballs and mozzarella cheese. And we sell the homemade tiramisu by the caseload. We have had a great reception here in West Mt. Airy. People know you don't have to be rich to come here and get a great meal.”
Born and raised in Fairmount, Vargas was “a street guy” whose father was in landscaping. Joe found his career, however, when his father-in-law, Bruno Scarcini, a native of Italy and the first executive chef at the Saloon, an upscale South Philly institution, “taught me everything he knew about Italian cooking.”
Vargas opened up Pasta Cucina in 1992 in the Bellevue Hotel and flourished there for 10 years. After selling Pasta Cucina, he moved to Florida, where he became one of Steve Martorano’s executive chefs for six years at Café Martorano in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida. Vargas was then an executive chef for British Airways’ first-class lounge from 2008 to 2010.
Vargas later moved to Northern Liberties, where he opened Mangiamo 444, a 65-seat BYOB that did lots of catering, but he left at the end of 2018 because of “issues with the landlord.”
After that, “I had a couple of opportunities downtown, but I had good friends up here who told me there was no place in Mt. Airy serving authentic South Philly Italian food.”
Vargas, who still lives in South Philly and commutes daily, signed a five-year lease for South Philly Italian Kitchen with an option for another five years.
“Kitchen” is strictly a family affair. Vargas' daughter, Tatiana, also cooks, and both she and a second daughter, Josie, work the front of the house. A granddaughter, Gianna, is a server.
“Everyone in my family is a good cook,” Vargas said. “We had the number one pizza place in Northern Liberties, but there is no pizza oven here. We are bringing back old-school, old-world Italian. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have built great relationships here. I was recently offered a deal to open a restaurant in the new Rivers Casino, but I turned it down.”
For more information, call 215-842-5561 or visit southphillyitaliankitchen.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org