by Len Lear
About a year ago, Bacio, the Italian BYOB owned by Jay Saponaro which had been at 311 West Mt. Pleasant Ave. for many years, closed its doors. Last July Bacio reappeared in a much bigger property at 700 Bethlehem Pike in Erdenheim, where Fingers had been for more than 20 years, then Roberto’s for several years and then two more restaurants that lasted about as long as the time between haircuts.
Meanwhile, the former location for Bacio, across the street from Goat Hollow, another venerable Mt. Airy landmark, has been vacant since Bacio left, but that is going to change in the very near future when Joe Vargas, 53, who has been an executive chef for many years, will open the South Philly Italian Kitchen, a BYOB, there.
“We will have a health-conscious dietary menu that is not only fast but affordable,” said Vargas in an interview in mid-March as workers were renovating the familiar Mt. Pleasant Avenue property just west of Lincoln Drive. “We will have a ‘boss lounge’ in the rear, a private room with six tables. In the front there will be about 35 seats and background music by Sinatra.”
Born and raised in Fairmount, Vargas was “a street guy” whose father was in landscaping. Vargas 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, who is Hispanic, 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. He was then an executive chef for British Airways’ first-class lounge from 2008 to 2010.
Vargas later moved to Northern Liberties, where he opened Mangiamo444, a 65-seat BYOB that did lots of catering, but he left at the end of 2018 because of “issues with the landlord.”
Since then, “I had a couple of opportunities downtown, but I had good friends up here who told me there was no place around here in Mt. Airy serving authentic South Philly Italian food.”
Vargas, who insists he will open to the public in the very near future, will have “homemade fresh mozzarella, everything homemade, all pasta and cutlets cooked to order, bronzino as a special, Philly cheesesteaks. Closed Monday. No lunch. A few tables outside. Gravy (sauces) homemade. Liscio’s bread.” Vargas, who still lives in South Philly (“the concrete jungle”) and commutes every day, has signed a five-year lease for South Philly Italian Kitchen with an option for another five years.
“We were gonna make this Mangiamo Two,” Vargas said, “but decided on South Philly Italian Kitchen, so everyone will know right away it is authentic South Philly Italian food. I was away from Philly for seven years, but I have grandkids now and wanted to come back for them … Every time a plate leaves the kitchen, it has to be right. We may have a soft opening. My staff from South Philly will come here. I’m bringing the band back together.
“My two daughters will work with me, as they did in Northern Liberties. Tatiana, 30, is an excellent chef, and Josie, 26, will run the front of house. Josie does all the social media. Everyone in my family is a good cook. We had the number one pizza in Northern Liberties, but there is no pizza oven here. I hope to do it later. We’re bringing back old school, old world Italian. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
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