by Len Lear
Arthur Cavaliere is only 32, but he is no guppy in the restaurant business. He is a Roxborough native and Central High School graduate (257th graduating class in 1998) who may just one day be a household name among foodies, like some of the boldface names he has worked for in his ascent up the culinary ladder.
In mid-December of 2011, Cavaliere and his business partner, Mt. Airy resident Mark Sherman, opened In Riva at 4116 Ridge Ave., which overlooks Kelly Drive and the Schuylkill River and was previously home to Franco’s Trattoria and before that, Verge. (Sherman has quite a human interest story of his own. He grew up in public housing on welfare and now seems to own half of East Falls.)
In Riva (Italian for “along the banks of the river”), a Southern Italian newcomer with wood-fired pizzas and lots more, has been beehive-busy since day one, so much so that a co-worker of mine who has eaten there 12 times says she does not even bother going into their always-full parking lot. It is the “squeeziest” restaurant parking lot we have ever been in. Reminds me of the song “Hotel California,” by the Eagles; once you check in, you may not be able to check out (just a slight exaggeration).
The peripatetic Cavaliere has serious industry “cred”; he started his career working as a line cook for Derek Davis in Manayunk and moved up quickly to Stephen Starr and Jose Garces at the opening of El Vez and later Amada. Cavaliere eventually was named executive chef at El Vez and then executive chef at Parc. When he left to take a position as executive chef at the celebrated Central Michel Richard in Washington, D.C., Starr issued a statement that “His (Cavaliere’s) outstanding performance at Parc has contributed to its success.”
“I didn’t always want to be a chef,” said Cavaliere, who was an English Literature major at Penn State, in an interview last week. “I wanted to go into law, like my father, but something always drew me back to cooking … So I ended being a chef, and ironically, my little brother (Michael) ended up being the lawyer!”
Arthur has a beautiful sister, Toni, who also works at In Riva. “She has been my most helpful ally over the last few months,” he insisted. “She’s great!”
Despite the omnipresent crowds that fill In Riva daily like a wetsuit (it holds 100 inside and 65 outside), Cavaliere insists, “Year one was harder than I thought … my patience has been tested time and time again, but I feel that if we continue to do what we do and provide a good product at a good price, we will persevere.”
Interior designer Shannon Willis has created a dramatic renovation with the first floor, which has a high ceiling, raised architect stools at the bar, cinderblock walls and concrete floor. A wooden communal table seating 14 made from old doors found at Sherman’s Sherman Mills is topped with old table lamps.
Cavaliere’s home-made pastas are a grill’s best friend. We sampled the lobster pasta with chanterelle mushrooms and basil ($16), which resonated with vibrant flavors. “Our most popular dishes as of late have been our pastas,” said Cavaliere. “It takes a lot of work to make six different pastas in-house, but I grew up making fresh pasta at home with my parents on the weekends, so it was just something I HAD to do once I opened my own restaurant.”
But the burrata salad with oil-cured olives ($12) was the MVP of our dinner. Burrata (“buttered” in Italian) is ridiculously rich. Burrata resembles a ball of mozzarella, but this cheese is softer and has an interior that spills out, revealing soft, stringy curd and fresh cream. If you’re a lover of mozzarella, ricotta or anything creamy, this cheese is the bomb.
It could ride solo, but its soul mate in the salad is mega-juicy tomatoes, the squirtiest we have had in a long time. They are just regular cherry tomatoes made magical by the alchemy of the chef. He blanches and peels them, then pickles them in a liquid of sherry vinegar, fennel seed and chile flake. Their texture makes a great marriage with the soft burrata.
There is a huge selection of wines, cocktails and craft beers as well as one of the best Sangrias we have ever experienced ($21 for a carafe that holds two to three glasses), and as far as I’m concerned, Sangria is a dirty word. Whenever I hear it, I wash my mouth out with chocolate.
On the local restaurant blogs, negative comments about In Riva are as rare as an Asian face on Mount Rushmore. The Inquirer’s Craig LaBan commented in an online chat at the beginning of December that “the flavors (at In Riva) are great, thoughtful and well prepared … And the crispy artichoke appetizer is not to be missed.” The crispy artichoke appetizer with black olive and lemon yogurt ($10) is definitely tasty, but for us it was overly salty.
The pizzas are pure sunshine, lavished with luxe flavors. We tried the four-cheese pizza and sausage/pepper pizza (each 12 inches and $14), both anointed with exquisitely balanced, ambrosial flavors.
The only real negative, though, at In Riva is the supersonic din. Two men at the next table were literally screaming to be heard, and adding to the din is the loud metal music in the background. (Our server, Steve Boland, was very personable and knowledgeable. He is a native of Lafayette Hill and a graduate of Germantown Academy and Penn State.)
You might be surprised to find out where Cavaliere eats out in his one day off a week. It is not at a Rittenhouse Square temple of gastronomy. “On my day off,” he explained, “I ALWAYS go to Pho Xe Lua at 9th and Race Streets. It is the best food — not just the best Vietnamese food — in the entire city.”
Like so many talented young chefs these days, Cavaliere has entrepreneurial ambitions. “My long-term goal is to develop a great destination neighborhood in East Falls by opening more restaurants,” he said. “Since I grew up in Northwest Philly, I know there is a shortage of high quality/good value eats past Fairmount Avenue. My partner and I would love to develop concepts in East Falls. It rests on the river with amazing views and easy access, so we want to take our neighborhood to the next level and create something special.”
On Tuesdays all pizzas at In Riva are half-price, and you might say that Wednesdays are “Winesdays” because all bottles of wine are half-price. An option to the a la carte menu is the “Chef’s Tasting” menu — four courses selected by the chef for $35. Cavaliere also offers cooking classes monthly for up to 20 in which he teaches how to make and stretch dough and eventually cook in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven.
For more information, 215-438-4848 or www.in-riva.com.