Making the Cut
Inspired chefs spice up the area’s dynamic dining culture
by Leigh Stuart and Bill Donahue

From Italian to American, Mexican to Mediterranean, the restaurants of the Greater Philadelphia Area offer options to suit any taste imaginable—world-class pizzas, prime steaks, cutting-edge vegan dishes and much more. Behind all these great meals, of course, are the master chefs who have put in the hard work and creativity to make our region a culinary destination on par with any city in the country. We’re not talking just about the folks with famous last names—Garces, Sbraga, Solomonov, Vetri, etc. We spoke with six men and women from disparate backgrounds—Ricardo Franco, David Marques, Timothy Thomas, Habib Troudi, Marcie Turney and Mark Twersky—about their establishments, their inspirations and their thoughts on what makes the local dining scene shine so brightly.

David Marques
Since 2008, David Marques has been spending his days perfecting the menu and the experience for customers of Horsham’s Buona Via Italian Seafood and Grill, which he serves as executive chef. By the start of the New Year, however, his schedule will likely require some adjustments, as the team behind Buona Via expands to a second restaurant in Hatboro, an American bar and grill dubbed, simply, 58 York.

Opened on the site of the shuttered Café La Fontana, 58 York will feature “Americana cuisine” influenced by regional dishes from across the country—“from Oregon to Florida,” Marques says. The new restaurant will include a raw bar and a semi-open kitchen, along with “two big bars” and a general store, according to Marques.

Chef Marques, who in 1991 graduated from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, cut his teeth at notable Philadelphia restaurants. He later crossed the Atlantic to live in his parents’ native Portugal, where he had his own restaurant. Upon his return to the states, he started working at Ristorante Mediterraneo in Horsham, owned by Buona Via proprietor Salvatore Carratta. Marques’ skill in fresh fish and seafood made him the obvious choice to lead Buona Via’s kitchen, and the restaurant has been on the right side of the growth curve ever since.

The restaurant business is always busy, but even Marques can admit the past six months have been something of a blur—spending a great deal of time and energy preparing for the new restaurant’s opening, while maintaining the level of excellence customers have come to expect from Buona Via.

“This time of year gets really busy for us as it is, especially with all the holiday parties,” he says. “We’ve continued to introduce new items that people might not see elsewhere, like prosciutto and black mozzarella, different kinds of pastas and other exciting things. … We want people to come here and indulge a little—experience the food, have a good time and enjoy the atmosphere we’ve created here.”

Soon enough, locals will be able to “indulge” at the new place in Hatboro, though Marques says 58 York’s personality will be completely different than Buona Via’s. He expects the new restaurant to open its doors by year’s end.

Habib Troudi
Over the past few years, the tract of Montgomery County between Horsham and Blue Bell has become something of a hot spot for exciting new restaurants. Thanks to Habib Troudi, it’s about to get one more in the form of Panache Wood-Fired Grill.

Carved out of the building that had been home to L’Angolo Blue, an Italian restaurant that closed earlier this year, Panache is based on a “simple concept,” as Troudi says, offering thin-crust Neapolitan-style pizzas cooked in a wood-burning, coal-fired oven, as well as prime steaks, seafood and other new American cuisine. Once complete, the space will have two bars, one of which will also house the massive 10,000-pound oven needed to crisp up those pizzas and cook other dishes in cast-iron skillets. Troudi expects Panache to open its doors by year’s end.

“We’re aiming to have the best of the best,” he says. “We want to cater to casual folks, families, so I’m trying to humble the building down a bit. It will have an industrial look and a casual theme—no white tablecloths here.”

Troudi is a veteran of the restaurant business. Although he had no formal culinary education, he learned on the job—first, at a French restaurant in his native Tunisia and then, after coming to America, honing his craft in restaurants in Miami and elsewhere before striking out on his own. Today, in addition to Panache, he owns the wildly popular Ristorante Castello, a 250-seat destination serving northern Italian cuisine, just up the road from Panache on Skippack Pike. At both restaurants, the menus originate from Troudi’s mind, Troudi’s pen, though he splits his time between overseeing the kitchen and tying down any loose ends on the business side. 

“I’m an old-school guy,” he says. “I’ve kept educating myself, and I’m still learning every single day. I’ve always felt that if you offer good food in a good setting, the people will come. That’s the only thing that has kept me going.”

Marcie Turney
Chef Marcie Turney helms an enviable restaurant empire. She and her partner, Valerie Safran, have led the transformation of 13th Street in Philadelphia’s Midtown Village neighborhood, which now includes five of their restaurants, including Barbuzzo, Jamonera, Little Nonna’s and Lolita. In addition, the pair owns two boutique shops—Open House, which was launched in 2002, and Verde—and Chef Turney has her own line of sweets under the name Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates.

Their newest restaurant, Bud & Marilyn’s, is modeled after the restaurant owned by Turney’s grandparents, Bud and Marilyn Briese, in her hometown of Ripon, Wis. “When I hear how many places we have, I’m just kind of, like, ‘Wow, that’s insane,’” she says.

As if this weren’t enough, Turney says there is still more to come. She and Safran have lived above Jamonera for 10 years but recently bought a new second-floor space in South Philly where they intend to move—along with, of course, a ground-floor space they will turn into a restaurant. This new restaurant, Turney says, likely won’t open for at least a year or two.

When asked what keeps her going forward, continually creating new restaurants and sparking new entrepreneurial ventures, she answers simply, and with a laugh: “It’s kind of like a weird addiction, I think. It’s exciting to do something new, design something that will be awesome in Philadelphia.”

While many might look at each of Chef Turney’s restaurants as unique, she notes there is at least one commonality among them all—“big flavors,” she says. While her chefs, who like to take educational sojourns to different restaurants within the empire, may jump from Mexican to Mediterranean, she says every cuisine “has a pasta or a noodle or a way of grinding spices. [The restaurants] have a similar thread that runs through them all, but then all these different flavors. I think that’s what’s exciting.

“I’ll never know everything, but you can always keep learning.”

Mark Twersky
It can be a tricky proposition when a business owner wants to bring the next generation into the family business, even to lead the business. One of the best ways to ensure a smooth transition occurs when the parent tells the adult child, “Go off and do something else first, learn something else. Then come back and we’ll see what happens.” Huntingdon Valley native Mark Twersky can relate, to a degree.

A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, Twersky began his career in Stephen Starr’s “family” of restaurants, as chef tournant in the illustrious Buddakan in Philadelphia. To gain experience and expand his view of the world, he left Philadelphia and went on to work in a number of renowned New York restaurants, including Dos Caminos, Isabella’s, Le Cirque, Per Se and Alfama. He also worked extensively as a private chef, cooking for clients in Manhattan, upstate New York and the Hamptons, as well as in California.

His culinary career came full circle in 2014, when Twersky returned to the STARR Restaurants family as executive chef of Starr’s Barclay Prime—home of the finest steaks known to man and, of course, the legendary $120 Barclay Prime cheesesteak—in Rittenhouse Square. He has since been building upon STARR’s legacy of culinary excellence, while lending his personal touch to Barclay Prime’s menu of signature items.  

Timothy Thomas
Timothy Thomas never backs down from a challenge. That’s partially why he considers “modern American” his preferred style of cuisine, because it requires balancing different cultures and getting them to work together on a plate. It’s also what led him to the kitchen of Flora, a 16-seat BYOB in Jenkintown that opened its doors last November, serving only seasonal vegetable-based cuisine. Thomas took over as chef in July 2015, and he quickly applied his unique flair to the menu.

“I’ve worked in a lot of different venues—sports arenas, hotels, French and Italian fine dining, gastro pubs—but this was my first time doing vegan,” says Thomas, who previously led the kitchen at Forcella, another Jenkintown restaurant owned by the same folks who launched Flora. “The challenge comes in substituting vegetables in dishes that I would otherwise do with meat, and in implementing flavorful vegan sauces to complement the vegetable dish.”

One example from the current autumn menu—spicy cauliflower wings and lemon-thyme waffle with golden raisin chutney—was inspired by a popular Southern dish: chicken and waffles. Likewise, with shepherd’s pie, another dish currently on the menu, the combination of lentils and mushrooms provide the “meatiness” that would be provided by ground beef in a more traditional recipe.

Thomas intends to continually refine his technique and incorporate new items into the four-course, prix fixe menu. For starters, he hopes to introduce a raw vegan option as one of the courses. He’d also like to do “some playful desserts.” In particular, he envisions a trio of “boardwalk treats”—namely, funnel cake, sugar rolls and dessert empanadas.

Ricardo Franco
South American by birth, Ricardo Franco was raised in Brazil and Italy. He came to the United States in the late 1970s to forge a career in the culinary arts and made a beeline for New York City, where he honed his skills beside Michelin-starred chefs. “We used to make everything from scratch,” he says. “We used to make our own headcheese.”

An invigorated Franco opened his first restaurant in South Carolina in the early ’90s. Travel—one might say fate—brought him to the New Hope/Lambertville area, and he immediately fell in love with its quaint, historic richness. Upon relocating, he opened his own restaurant, Atrio, in Stockton, N.J., which he ran for 10 years. In 2012, he signed on to lead the kitchen at Azie on Main in Villanova, where he remains today.

“We work clean, we work neat, and we try to offer the best food in the best way we can make it,” says Franco. “We’re not cheap, but by not being cheap we’re providing something extra that you’re not going to find someplace else. Every day is a new challenge, up and down. On a Friday or Saturday night, we’ll serve 200 to 250 people. You’re not going to please 250 people every night, because it has to be almost like the perfect storm … but if you send it out with love, they’ll be back.”

Although Azie on Main is known for its sushi, which is rolled to order, other dishes Franco would put on the “must order” list include the Azie rock shrimp and, from the wok, kobe beef fried rice and crab fried rice, which he considers “the best on the Main Line.” Considering his wide-ranging background, influenced by cuisine from across the globe, he says guests who have never before dined at Azie on Main are in for a delightful surprise.

“We have four restaurants in the company,” says Franco, referring to Azie on Main and its sister restaurants Azie in Media, Teikoku and Mikado, “so I’m fortunate to go around and see what they’re doing. I also get into Philly and New York to see what’s new. One thing in this business: It’s a challenge every day, and if you don’t stop learning, you don’t become complacent.”

Photograph by Jody Robinson