It was mid-afternoon on a sunny Friday in July 2015 when Michael Franco got the text. Sent by a bartender who worked at his Rittenhouse Square restaurant, Crow and the Pitcher, it had just three words.
“What’s this shit?”
Franco clicked. Staring back at him on Philly.com was Alex Capasso, his chef and business partner. Then he read the headline.
“Restaurateur nabbed in child porn probe.”
The article detailed accusations by feds who caught Capasso in an undercover sting, and they were horrifying. The chef wound up charged with “sexual exploitation of children, production of child pornography, and distributing child pornography” in U.S. District Court in Camden.
To Franco, it was a total shock. Though he’d known the chef in a professional sense since they met in 2002 at a spot called Max’s in Cinnaminson, NJ, they weren’t close outside of work. They hadn’t even worked in the same restaurant again until 2014, when Capasso called to ask Franco if he’d consider leaving his job as a captain at NYC fine-dining temple Per Se to join him opening a bistro in Philadelphia.
But Franco didn’t let his shock take over. Instead, he sprang into action.
“There wasn’t time to worry or cry or be upset,” he said, explaining that his first thought was about his staff — he didn’t want them to be suddenly without jobs. “It was just, let’s figure out what to do next.”
He called three people, in quick succession: His landlord, real estate mogul (and now-councilman) Allan Domb, his public relations firm, and his mom. Then he started preparing the restaurant for service.
That night, Crow and the Pitcher was busier than ever before in its 15-month existence. And — somewhat surprisingly — it’s still open.
“A lot of people would have sunk,” said Georges Perrier, the luminary chef who mentored Franco when he was general manager at Le Bec-Fin and remains a good friend. “Some other restaurateur might have closed, but Michael is a strong guy and has a strong will. I did not think he would close.”
A rough week
Capasso had actually been missing from work the entire week before news of his arrest broke, leaving Franco to juggle the schedule for both back and front of the house. A sous-chef they had only recently hired stepped up to run the kitchen. Franco took care of unlocking the doors each morning.
“I kept receiving phone calls from Alex’s family, ‘Can you open this day, can you handle this shift for him.’ I was like, ‘Is everything OK?’ When they didn’t answer, I kind of knew something was going on,” Franco said. “But I never imagined it was this.”
Right now, Capasso’s case is pending in U.S. District Court in Camden, where he faces a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for the alleged production of child porn plus another five years for distribution of the same. The latest word is that he will seek a plea bargain.
When the bombshell hit, a rough week got exponentially rougher. Within hours of the Inquirer breaking the news, TV cameras swarmed the restaurant, which is set in a relatively quiet pocket on 19th Street just south of the Square.
Franco’s first instinct was to run and hide. Not a good idea, cautioned George Polgar, a PR vet who was on a plane from Los Angeles when the news came down but stepped off his flight just in time to get Franco on the phone and prep him before news trucks rolled up.
“If you don’t talk to the media during a crisis, they will just go ahead and publish or broadcast speculation and conjecture,” he explained.
“They told me, ‘If you hide, it looks like you knew something,’” Franco said. “Well, if that’s the case, then yeah, not a problem. I’ll be the face. And I went out there.”
It helped, Polgar notes, that Franco is “young, clean-cut and good looking.” His appearance proved a counterpoint to the photo floating around of Capasso; in Polgar’s words, that of the “creepy hipster bearded perv chef.”
Not shying away from the cameras or interviews paid off.
In most of the follow-up articles and newscasts about the disgraced chef’s legal issues, reporters didn’t mention the restaurant’s name, referring to just “a restaurant in Rittenhouse,” something Franco now notes with gratitude. And when food writers put out pieces about Crow and the Pitcher, they mostly refrained from dropping a gratuitous “you know, that place where the former chef was arrested for child porn” into their stories.
Franco and the other (silent) partner in Crow and the Pitcher, Prajakta Harshe-Patharkar, quickly got their lawyer involved and dissociated Capasso from their business.
They never seriously considered closing.
“I’m sure the thought of it crossed my mind, but it wasn’t something I let myself fixate on,” Franco said. “Our employees showed us so much support. So it was just about how are we going to survive and succeed.”
A wealth of experience
Though he’s only 35, Franco has a wealth of experience in the industry, including time spent at a pair of the best restaurants in the world.
His grandfather opened a restaurant in South Philly in 1949, and Franco’s first job was washing dishes and cleaning mussels for the offshoot his uncle ran, called Barrel’s at 17th and Wolf (it’s still there). His family moved to South Jersey, and during high school he worked as a busser and a cook at stalwart Italian spots Cotardo’s and Filomena’s. Though he tried college for a year, on his mother’s request, it wasn’t for him, and he scored his first fine-dining job at Catelli’s in Voorhees — all the waiters wore tuxedos.
After a few more fancy stops, he landed at Max’s in Cinnaminson as general manager. Alex Capasso was chef, and Inquirer critic Craig LaBan awarded the farmhouse restaurant three bells. Good reviews can sometimes cause as much strife as bad ones. As Franco remembers it, Capasso, riding on ego, asked for some kind of insurance for himself and the kitchen staff, and the owner refused. The atmosphere in the place soured, and Franco moved on, but not before getting a glimpse of Capasso’s kitchen skills.
“I got to see how talented he was. I saw the passion and really respected him then…as a chef,” Franco said.
Franco was working at Positano Coast in Society Hill when he got a call from Le Bec-Fin. Unbeknownst to him, a friend had dropped of his resume, and after his first interview, he got a job at the Walnut Street dining room. He worked his way up through the wine team, eventually becoming a sommelier in charge of the restaurant’s monumental wine cellar. (He once sourced and sold a bottle of 1829 Madeira for $13,000 — “I think the guy was celebrating his daughter’s graduation from Penn. He wanted the best of everything.”)
Franco became general manager at Le Bec-Fin just as things were starting to go south. After 40 years, white tablecloth dining was on its way out, and business just wasn’t what it once was. Franco tried to reason with Perrier, suggesting changes in a bid to save the place. The famously stubborn chef refused. Franco departed for New York City.
At Per Se, Thomas Keller’s East Coast answer to his famous California luxe dining establishment French Laundry, Franco started over as a food runner. But he rose quickly through the ranks, and eventually landed a position as a dining room captain. For the first time, he began to think that maybe he wouldn’t open a place of his own.
“It was a career job,” he explained. “I had good benefits, stability, everything you would want. Then Alex called.”
Franco isn’t really able to pinpoint what exactly made him give up that career position to take a risk in Philly, but he did like that he’d get to return to his hometown. He gave a month’s notice at Per Se, and prepared to move back to Philadelphia.
Crow and the Pitcher opened in April, 2014. Billed as a spot for the neighborhood with some elegant dining options — including a cheese cellar whose wares were proffered on a gorgeous cart gifted by George Perrier — the restaurant was modestly busy. It wasn’t packed, but the Rittenhouse denizens started working it into their regular rotation. (“People around here go out every night!” Franco says.)
In August 2014, Craig LaBan awarded it two bells — “a good two bells” — and things hummed along. Eleven months later, when the Capasso mess broke, they threatened to screech to a halt. But never did.
In the wake of the scandal, not one of Crow and the Pitcher’s employees quit their jobs, something Franco points to as giving him the strength to push forward. The new sous-chef who covered for Capasso on that fateful week last July — Greg Headon — is still working for the restaurant; he’s now the chef.
Nine months have passed, and things are mostly calm in the narrow dining room south of the Square. Franco has been able to do some things his former partner argued against — small things, like fresh flowers in the bathrooms — and has taken more of a role in helping shape the menu. He plans to tilt it more and more toward the food of Provence, in the south of France, and pull his wine program along the same lines.
But for all intents and purposes, Crow and the Pitcher lives on just the same as it ever did. Not everyone is thrilled about all aspects of that, however.
“I told him to change ‘ze name!” Georges Perrier, who lives nearby and can be found at the restaurant nearly every day, is insistent that the name “Crow and the Pitcher” has been irrevocably tainted.
“People don’t have a short memory for bad stuff,” he said. “I know that by experience.”
But Franco is determined to make things work under the original moniker.
“What I’m worried about is, if someone walks by and sees something else on the awning, they’re going to think we failed, that we didn’t make it. And we did.”