The Avenue of the Arts is proof that Philadelphians and tourists alike need top-of-the-line art venues to satiate their call to the city. In the same token, it doesn’t hurt to give them an accessible yet superior dining experience to top it off.
Which is exactly what Joseph Varalli did. In 1989 he opened Upstares at Varalli on the corner of Broad and Locust in the hopes of bringing a competitively-priced restaurant to the city’s theatre crowd as well as Center-City dwellers and tourists. Today, Varalli has done us one better with the addition of Sotto Varalli, on the ground level, which came into play about ten years after Upstares.
The two separate restaurants are connected by means of one elegant, dramatic winding staircase and both offer unique views of one of the city’s busiest intersections: Sotto, which means below in Italian, offers large windows that open up to expose a sidewalk crowd and create an alfresco feel, and Upstares provides ceiling-to-floor windows that invite in electrified lights bouncing off of the buildings on Broad and light up the interior of the restaurant.
While the views are something to be noted, what keeps regulars coming back is the food produced by Head Chef William Carroll. The cuisine that Carroll creates at Upstares & Sotto Varalli leans less towards trendier fusion and more toward a classic mix of fresh seafood highlighted by hints of the Mediterranean and gourmet Northern Italy classics. Carroll, however, isn’t afraid to play around with traditional dishes, everything about both restaurants, right down to the décor and wine list, is playful yet classic.
It’s Sotto Varalli we choose first when we enter in through the massive, shining glass doors off of Broad Street. Right away we notice that the crowd this Friday night makes the restaurant a place to see and be seen. Chic Center City dwellers and tourists donning business casual attire set the pace for a fabulous evening of upscale cuisine in a comfortable, yet artsy atmosphere.
As we wait only a moment to be seated, soft music floats through the air and mixes peacefully with the buzz of quiet conversation. The main dining room is bright and inviting, offering a space for a piano where regular jazz performances take place. The eye is immediately drawn to the marble-topped bar that dominates the center of the room, and a look above shows a truly unique piece – a giant squid that topples over the bar, portraying an almost fanciful, under-the-sea appeal.
Low lighting in the restaurant’s subsequent dining rooms combined with seating that includes high booths offer an ideal setting for a romantic date, the celebration of a milestone with family, or an upscale festivity with friends. The main bar is separated from the dining room through several large “waterfall windows,” offering a feeling of tranquility and adding to the overall coastal ambiance.
Endearing details, such as starfish light sconces, hang down from the ceiling. Light wood polished floors are complemented by a whimsical, sea blue paint that covers the walls.
Perhaps the most divine spotlight piece is the mosaic that trails around the entire restaurant, shifting colors from tranquil blues to fiery reds; it is a piece of art all on its own. Made out of recycled materials, it dances around the restaurant’s perimeter, creating a feeling of movement and generating a buzz from captivated diners.
As we take one last glance around, we are led to our table by a friendly host. The feeling is relaxed, the crowd is elegant, and now its time to try the food.
We order a bottle of San Rocco, Pinot Grigio with crisp flavors and overtones of spring-like green apple and pears to accompany the tempting basket of bread and pesto flavored oil that are brought. The bread is warm and delicious, an excellent head start.
Sotto Varalli’s Rocket Cobb Salad presents a seasonal mix of flavors that play with your tastebuds. Rocket, also known as arugula, adds a fresh, zesty overtone that combines with the baby greens and the other fresh tastes of blackberries and strawberries to contrast with the hearty chunks of whole lump crabmeat and tender pieces of shrimp. Topped with English blueberry cheese and a light lemon vinaigrette dressing, it is a divine mix of fresh, fruity and hearty tastes.
The Crab Cake, which can be served as either an appetizer or an entrée, is not your typical dry, seafood chain concoction. Instead it's smooth and almost creamy on the tongue. Combined with the slight crunch of the breading and a slightly spicy and sweet corn relish, it’s a lovely mixture of textures and tastes.
The Tuna Tartar features fresh ahi tuna flown in from Hawaii. It’s served with cumin chips: crunchy and spicy, which are a wonderful complement to the cool, fresh seafood. A nicely perfumed sampling of arugula tops the dish, and when combined with the wasabi, the dish comes alive with earthy and spicy tastes.
The Shrimp and Crabmeat Linguine is a dish that highlight’s Chef Carroll’s affinity for mixing tastes from the coast with authentic Italian techniques. Tender hunks of shrimp and whole lump crabmeat sit atop swirls of fresh cooked linguine, all bathed in a white wine sauce with hints of sun dried tomatoes, shallots and garlic. Carroll also throws in some more arugula, and somewhere inside the bed of meat and pasta lies a hidden ingredient that delivers an almost shocking taste, goat cheese. This addition, while unexpected, has a warm, rich taste to it that ties the dish together beautifully.
The Scallops arrive carefully arranged with slightly browned tops. The meat is succulent and almost sweet, with a full, rich flavor complemented by a warm bed of wild mushroom risotto. Spring-like tastes come into play when coupled with a simple, fresh arugula vinaigrette.
The Breast of Chicken Fra Diavolo bears a tender texture that melts on the tongue. The meat is rubbed with mustard and seasoned breadcrumbs, presenting a hearty taste. It is served with Diavolo sauce, which tastes almost like a barbecue sauce, and offers a very nice array of flavors and textures.
The Tartufo is a sweet ending to this meal: its small spheres of smooth, vanilla gelato come with their liberal dusting of powdered cocoa and are well-suited to sharing. The dessert is accompanied by two dollops of homemade whipped cream and fresh, juicy strawberries. The dish is sweet and creamy and contrasts appealingly with Varalli’s deeply flavored espresso. We couldn’t be more satiated down to our fight over the last spoonful.
Whether it’s the artsy appeal or the tranquility imparted by the water rippling through the windows next to us, we are reluctant to leave when the check arrives. The Academy of Music stares us down outside, but with no tickets, we decide instead to float Upstares for a nightcap and some sweeping views of the city.
The winding staircase located in the rear, draws us to Upstares where we find a smaller, yet enchanting atmosphere. An oil painting that scales the restaurant’s back wall features the great music houses of the world while vast, ceiling-to-floor windows allow a unique view of our own city’s great landmarks and invite in the lights from the other buildings outside, illuminating the room and setting us right at ease.
We take a seat at the smaller, smooth topped bar and slowly sip a glass of Biso, Merlot with ripe berry and cherry flavors and a slight vanilla finish, as we soak in the views around us.
Once we finally do pull ourselves from one of our new favorite seafood-centric Avenue of the Arts staples, we promise we’ll be back, but next time with tickets in hand.
Insider Tip: When booking reservations, whether by phone or online, be sure to mention any shows you might be seeing that evening so that the staff of Varalli can be sure to get you there on time.