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A fresh take on a neighborhood stalwart in Queen Village

Fresh pasta at Southwark



The patio at Southwark

Situated on the corner of 4th and Bainbridge, the restaurant and bar Southwark lies at the entrance to Queen Village's evolving Fourth Street corridor. Fabric Row -- as the stretch is often called --is experiencing a mini dining boom: Hungry Pigeon restaurant opened last year, joining favorites like Famous 4th Street Delicatessen and Red Hook Coffee & Tea. After twelve years in business, the longtime neighborhood anchor was recently taken over by local couple Chris D'Ambro and Marina De Oliveira. 

"There are a ton of places opening at the same time," says De Oliveira. "It's all really good -- everyone's pretty excited to be part of this neighborhood exploding." 

The duo came to Southwark after years in the restaurant industry -- him in the kitchen, her in the front-of-the-house. Since reopening in February, the neighborhood has embraced the reinvigorated eatery. 

"People are happy that somebody was interested in carrying on this tradition instead of just demolishing and putting in something totally different and new," she says.

D'Ambro grew up in the Malvern area and credits his Italian roots with his early culinary experiences. 

"Our family is a very typical large, loud Italian family and the focus of a weekday meal is always an important thing," he explains. As the youngest of five, he got the "low level" jobs like peeling garlic, cutting lemons, and breading the chicken cutlets, but put in extra work because "if I helped out more prior to dinner, then I didn't have to help clean up afterwards." 

As a student at Malvern Preparatory School, D'Ambro would walk through the woods after school to get to Anthony's Pizza, where he bussed tables and washed dishes. Later, he started helping out in the kitchen at the Classic Diner. After one semester at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, he called home and told his parents, "I hate this...I don't know what I'm doing." He left at the end of the year and spent a summer shucking oysters while looking around for culinary schools. 

Meanwhile, D'Ambro's big brother Joe told him he had the hookup to a world-famous chef in Philly. 

"I'm like, 'C'mon, man, whaddya mean? You don't know anyone that's world famous,'" recalls D'Ambro. Joe, true to his word, gave him the number for his old fraternity brother Marc Vetri. Soon after, Chris was stodging (restaurant speak for interning or apprenticing) at the chef's nationally renowned Italian restaurant Vetri

"It was my first intro into this world of professional cooking and I was just blown away," he says. "I was like, 'Oh my God, there's a whole fish...a whole goat showed up!'" 

The line cooks at the time included Joey Baldino (now owner of Zeppoli restaurant in Collingswood), Michael Solomonov of Zahav, and Dionicio Jimenez, currently executive chef at Stephen Starr's El Rey

"It was this group of people who would eventually go on to do amazing things and I was chopping parsley for them." 

D'Ambro ended up attending the Culinary Institute of America, completing an externship in the Berkshires near the famed Tanglewood music venue in an inn kitchen that was "very French and rigid and strict." Later, he worked at a restaurant in Florence, Italy. Back in the states, he cooked at a number of restaurants, opening Talula's Garden in Philly in 2011. It was there he met De Oliveira. 

Originally from Newtown, Mass., De Oliveira ended up in Philadelphia on a whim after joining her best friend on a cross-country road trip from California. 

"The first thing I saw coming into Philly was Broad Street parking -- everybody parked down the middle of the [street] -- I thought I was on the moon," she recalls. But, as she soon found out, "Philly sucks you in." 

She stayed, working at Tria, Fountain Porter, Little Nonna's, and as a server at Talula's Garden, where she met D'Ambro. 

Not long after becoming a couple, the pair started checking out restaurants with the idea of buying their own, but nothing panned out. They spent a year running a farm-to-table restaurant in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, finishing off their stint by cooking for Adam Levine's 350-guest wedding. 

On the way back to Philly, they got engaged and made plans for their own spot. The next day, they did a walk-through at Southwark -- the owners were ready to retire to Cape May after over a decade in the neighborhood. A year later, the charming corner space was theirs. The couple got to work, with plenty of help from friends and family.

Big brother Joe -- the one who'd shared Vetri's number -- is a contractor; he came in and redid the place, building furniture and updating the bathrooms. D'Ambro's mom planted tulips in the candle-lit courtyard. Amelia Runyan, the friend from the road trip who now works as a Philly-based stylist and interior designer, sewed curtains, wallpapered the bathrooms, and picked out art from neighborhood shops including Jinxed, Philly AIDS Thrift and Retrospect Vintage. She also added fresh greenery, exposed the brick in the back dining room, updated the lighting and painted the purple ceiling a clean white. The beloved front bar, where patrons love to sit for dinner or an after-work cocktail, remains unchanged. 

"Southwark had a lot of fans because of the people who ran it, but also because of the way that the space made people feel," says Runyan. "People felt really attached to it. We wanted to keep some of that feeling...to freshen up Southwark but keep its original vibe." 

The menu remains seasonal and the bar offerings classic, but with some updates. 

"We took [what they built] and modernized it a little bit, so you can still get a Manhattan but you can also get an original cocktail," says D'Ambro. 

The drinks menu features house creations like the Five Square Fizz (bourbon, gin, chamomile tea, lemon honey), and tasty bites include a Crispy Pig's Head Slider, Beef Tartare, and vegetarian options such as Asparagus and Ramp custard. 

"The food's a little more updated but still very seasonal, very local," says D'Ambro, who sources his produce from local Pennsylvania co-ops and procures cheese from New Jersey dairies. Everything is handmade: "If it's on the menu, we've made it. It's a craft, and practicing our craft makes us better cooks." 

That includes the terrine, bread, butter, pasta, and ice cream (salted caramel; lemon curd) and sorbet (red wine; cranberry). 

Next door to Southwark, D'Ambro and De Oliveira are working on their second establishment: a wine bar and restaurant slated to open near the end of summer. It will be called Ambra, after the D'Ambro family's original last name. 

"[My Italian grandfather] had some brothers that were involved in some less than savory transactions...so he changed our name," explains D'Ambro with a laugh. "It's a throwback to my family's heritage and tradition, but it's also a little bit about breaking the rules. For so long, Italian food in Philadelphia [has been] old school, rustic...so here we're [going to] break the rules a little bit and do this Italian thing that's a little more modern."

The couple is excited about what's to come, and pleased with the response they've gotten to the new Southwark. 

"We've had a lot of neighborhood people come in," says De Oliveira. "We're happy that most people are coming back and saying it's kind of the same place, but that it feels [even] better in here." 

MARTHA COONEY is a Philly-based writer. She is founder and director of StoryUP!, which inspires kids to build literacy skills through comedy and storytelling. 
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