Philadelphia is brimming with excellent restaurants, most of which are comfortably inside the city limits. But heading out for dinner on a recent Friday night, I bypassed the Center City standbys, a buzzy new BYOB in Fishtown, and the swath of enduringly stellar spots on East Passyunk Avenue in favor of something that required traversing the Benjamin Franklin bridge into New Jersey. Located in the borough of Collingswood, Hearthside is the coolest new “Philly” restaurant that isn’t actually in Pennsylvania.
“If you take PATCO, it’s 15 minutes from Center City,” says chef Dominic Piperno. “It could literally take your longer to go to Fishtown from Center City than to get here.”
Piperno and his wife, Lindsay, opened the wood-fired American BYOB last fall, on the town’s charming main street, across from stores selling antiques and records and milkshakes. The couple first moved to Collingswood when Piperno worked at chef Joey Baldino’s Italian restaurant, Zeppoli, and never left.
“It’s a really cool town,” says the chef. “There are a couple of bakeries, and ton of cool vintage shops, a ton of restaurants. When we opened, we were number 15, all on this five block radius on Haddon Avenue.”
But the town, home to solid but similar restaurants, was due for something new, even if they didn’t know it yet.
“I would say that ninety percent of restaurants in Collingswood are Italian, red sauce, mom-and-pop places,” says Piperno. “When Joey opened Zeppoli, he was that first one to really do something a bit different. He focused on Sicilian food; it was a step above everybody—the attention to detail, the food, service, high quality ingredients. He set the bar.”
So when the Pipernos were ready to open their own restaurant, they decided to create, as the chef says, a “city-style dining experience,” but in the New Jersey community they love.
Besides Zeppoli, Piperno also spent time cooking in Italy, and at chef Greg Vernick’s eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. It was in the tiny town of Castellina in Chianti, outside of Florence, where Piperno first got a taste of cooking on the wood fired grill, and at Vernick Food & Drink where he learned about the beauty of cooking with a wood fired oven. Now, both are the heart of Hearthside.
Inside the warm, rustic dining room that seats 54, diners are situated around the open kitchen, where they can watch Piperno and sous chef Meredith “Mary” Medoway preparing their meal. The oak wood fire touches much of the menu, from the 35-ounce, 30-day-dry aged porterhouse meant to be shared with the table, to roasted beets, housemade breads, and a maitake mushroom dish with miso and delicate puffed grains.
“The flavor profile that comes out of [the wood-fired grill and oven] is amazing,” says Piperno. “The char we can get off produce and proteins at our temperatures, you can’t get that on a normal oven or grill. People are so wowed by the steak or the lamb chop, or even the carrot. That singe of the fire is a really special flavor profile.”
The raw program is memorable, too, with dishes that include a beef carpaccio peppered with Thai basil, crispy shallots, and jalapeño, and a red snapper ceviche that pops with tangy blood orange and the added texture of salty crushed potato chips.
Running a small town restaurant that aims to channel a metropolitan dining experience has some challenges—ones that the team is navigating with aplomb.
“Before we opened, we knew what we wanted to do, but knew that we had to do it carefully in the beginning to not scare people. To have this type of food, but have it be approachable,” says Lindsay, who helms the front of house and had a hand in the restaurant’s design. “We started with a grilled chicken; it’s safe. We took that off and now have lamb chops and duck breast. In the beginning we played it safe to a certain extent, but people trust us now.”
Certain expectations surrounding free bread are another hurdle. “So many people in South Jersey are used to getting a bread basket when they sit down,” says Piperno. “Our bread is all hand-crafted, it takes us a lot of time to make, and for us to give it away for free, it doesn’t make sense.”
Chef Medoway runs the bread program, in addition to the housemade pastas and many of the pastries. She and Piperno are working on a dish with sourdough and house-cured smoked lard butter to add to the menu, “If they want [bread], they’ll have to pay for it, just because of how long it takes to make it,” says Piperno.
As summertime approaches, the restaurant is opening twenty more seats outside. With the fire glowing inside, and tables and music spilling out to the street, the vibe is not exactly suburban.
“We have a lot of guests who say, I don’t feel like I’m in New Jersey. I feel like I could be in a little alleyway in Europe, or in New York,” says Lindsay. “That makes us feel really good, that we’re putting people in another mindset.”
Really, you’re in a small town in New Jersey, with Center City, Philadelphia just over the bridge.