BRICK AND MORTAR: Jonathan and Justin Petruce along with beverage manager Tim Kweeder breaking in their new wood-fired oven.
It all began with a phone call late at night from a drunken future server. Tim Kweeder picked up the phone: “Tim! You and Justin and Jonathan should open a restaurant!” mimics Justin Petruce, in his best yelling/slurred, wasted-dude impression.
“Me and my brother had a plan to open a pizza place that never came to light,” Justin explains. “So we basically just said, ‘Hey, let’s all do this.’”
With restaurant openings, things do have a tendency to come together at the last minute. Venturing into the future home of Petruce et al. on a chilly January afternoon, I found things in full construction-site mode, with workers drilling, hammering and sawing away, working hard to get the ventilation system in place. In just two short weeks, 1121 Walnut St., an airy, stained-glass-fronted former home to a women’s-clothing boutique, is going to be transformed into Petruce et al., one of the year’s most anticipated openings.
Originally from northeastern Pennsylvania, brothers Justin and Jonathan Petruce began their Philadelphia cooking careers at David Katz’s dearly departed Mémé in Fitler Square. After a year there, chef Chadd Jenkins of Fish told Justin that Little Fish chef Mike Stollenwerk was looking for someone. Justin wasn’t at Fish for long before Stollenwerk handed him the reins. “I wasn’t gonna say no,” Justin recalls. “That was exactly what I was looking for.” And it was a desire for a kitchen of their own that lead to Petruce.
Although there are no plans for pizza at Petruce, Justin and Jonathan’s inspiration come from a similar method of cooking. In the kitchen, they installed a custom, wood-fired oven, made by local craftsman Brian Klipfel of Fire Works Masonry, and an Argentinian grill, both of which are going to be used in all aspects of the menu.
On the sizable sample menu, the page is broken down into small plates and vegetables, pastas, and larger cuts of meat and fish meant for sharing. Decidedly rustic, the menu has influences ranging from Southern Italy to the American South. Beef tartare with pumpkin seeds and pickles is served on pane carasau, a twice-baked Sardinian flatbread. A lamb breast is accompanied by onion rings, red wine and capricho de cabra, the Spanish equivalent of a soft, French chèvre. Octopus gets the Southern treatment with rice grits, field peas and house-made hot sauce.
Petruce is sourcing from a selection of very-close-to-home farms, including Hood Rich, a self-proclaimed "hand-to-mouth vegetable operation” out of Fishtown, and Overbrook Herb Farm in Lansdale. The vegetable-heavy menu is filled with outliers like cardoons, amaranth and salsify.
And then there’s the bread.
Jonathan and Justin have been perfecting their wood-fired-bread game with a series of classes at COOK, where they teased the menu and educated students in the finer points of dough-making. But don’t expect crusty slices to land on your table without asking. Instead of plonking down a de rigueur bread basket, they’re planning to roll out bread courses, not unlike what Eli Kulp and company have been doing at High Street on Market. Giving bread its own place at the table transforms what could be an afterthought into something to relish.
Speaking to the Petruce brothers about their anticipated opening (“around Valentine’s Day”), I realized that nothing is an afterthought.
They brought in sommelier Kweeder, a longtime friend, to head up the wine program. The trio worked together at Fish and was in on the project from that first drunken phone call.
Kweeder, along with a handful of other wine-minding folks in town, has been making it his mission to bring natural wines to the forefront in Philadelphia. At his last post, at a.bar/a.kitchen, he curated a list of small-production bottles that remains the most exciting in the city. And he’s going to be preaching the gospel of natural wines at Petruce as well, with a custom-built, marble-topped wine station set up near the restaurant’s entrance. “Minimally manipulated wines that fly stealth under the [Robert Parker] ‘point-score’ radar,” Kweeder says of the list.
On the cocktails end is George Costa, a face that frequenters of Southwark and Pub & Kitchen will be more than a little happy to see. Echoing what’s happening in the kitchen, the plan for the bar is to house-make as much as possible via syrups, infusions, and fresh-squeezed juices to create a mix of classic and modern cocktails.
And then, of course, there is dessert.
Justin himself will head up the pastry program. “I never really worked with a pastry chef before,” he said. “I always had to do it myself and learn along the way.”
Along with an intriguing dessert lineup that includes combos like shortbread, maple and mozzarella; and roasted pineapple, coconut, chocolate and mochi, Petruce has invested in a soft-serve ice cream machine. In Justin’s estimation, there isn’t a better dessert in the world. First up? Soft-serve made with gjetost, sweet-savory Scandinavian goat’s milk cheese. “The first time I tasted it I thought, ‘This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever had in my life,’” he said. “‘This would make an incredible ice cream.’”
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