Philly’s newest pizzeria is run by a company that does hospitality so well, their restaurants get accolades despite being a side gig.
The Asbury Park and Jersey City locations of Porta, which soft-opened a Philadelphia outpost in late December at 1214 Chestnut St., have scored big. An “excellent” rating from the New York Times. A best pizza in the country nod from Tasting Table. One of the best brunches in America per the Food Network.
What makes the concept so successful? And does Philly, where options for Neapolitan-style pizza have exploded over the past decade, really need another place for wood-fired pies?
Per Mark Hinchliffe, a junior partner at Smith, Porta’s parent company, the answer is yes.
“It’s our take,” he said, standing in the middle of one side of the bisected restaurant space, surrounded by a whirlwind of activity as workers hurried to complete the two halves of the interior (one all white, one filled with reclaimed wood) in time for the next day’s soft launch.
On its surface, the Porta “take” seems similar to other Philly Neapolitan-style pizzerias.
Brick ovens built in Naples and mozzarella made in house? Brigantessa has both of those. Nothing but San Marzano tomatoes in the sauce and flour imported from Italy in the dough? Medusa follows the same schedule. Pies that cook in 90 seconds or less? Same as at Capofitto and Pizzeria Vetri and Stella and Zavino and Nomad and…
Porta’s pricing is unquestionably fair: Hinchliffe estimated a family of four could dine for $50 total; the priciest pie on the menu is $17.
The pizza-salad-pasta offerings are inclusive, with choices that are vegan and gluten-free. On the beverage side, there’s decent beer offerings — although macros are given top billing, a not-very-Philly way to arrange a drink list — plus inexpensive cocktails and a wide variety of wines.
So far, not very groundbreaking. The locale was not a given, since that particular stretch of Chestnut, despite being right around the corner from buzzy Midtown Village, has remained relatively quiet up to now. Indeed, that was one of its selling points.
“We were originally looking at Fishtown,” Hinchliffe said, but then the former Cella Luxuria furniture store space popped up. “We liked that this street had a feel that it was yet to be finished.”
But the bigger contribution Hinchliffe and his partners hope Porta (and the forthcoming Brickwall Tavern, which will open right behind it later this year) can offer is the overall “brand experience.”
Smith restaurants don’t just exist to churn out consumables. They exist to make people happy — both the customers and the proprietors.
Currently, Smith operates nine restaurants under five brand names. Brickwall Tavern in Asbury Park was the very first, and the only reason it exists, Hinchliffe said, is because “we wanted a cool place near our office for happy hour. So we opened one.”
Creating something out of nothing is core to the company’s ideology.
Smith started life as a printing firm, launched by founder Meg Brunette in 1990. She moved the business to Asbury Park and added new partners, and the company moved into branding and design. Then it morphed into something more.
Brunette and her growing cadre of partners realized if they were going to put their heart and soul into creating the look, feel and messaging of the product — well, then they might as well own that product.
They wanted a cool bar to hang out, so they built one, even though they had no real experience in the restaurant biz. It was a success, so they built another. And another. And so on. (This is comparable to what happened with Philly’s Quaker City Mercantile.) Smith also now owns and operates an Asbury Park condo development.
Along the way Smith realized it had something else to offer: insight into how it was able to reinvent itself. Another brand was born, a leadership development business called Fishbird.
Fishbird, Hinchliffe explained, is now the company linchpin. “It’s our core philosophy.”
It’s not a consulting firm, he maintains, even though it counts among its clients Fortune 500 companies including Virgin Mobile, Johnson & Johnson and the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t tell people what to do,” he said. “We get the people you’re already paying to live up to their full potential.”
What does that have to do with restaurants? Essentially, it means Smith is not in it to make a buck — “There’s plenty of things you can do to make money, opening restaurants is not one of them” — but to provide a great experience.
And the team is thrilled to be expanding to Philadelphia, which Hinchliffe said was chosen over New York because of its “underdog nature.”
“It’s really nice to be here,” Hinchliffe said. “It’s an honor to be part of the Philly restaurant scene.”