Restaurant Review

Little Place, Big Flavors: Park Place in Merchantville

Philip Manganaro didn’t plan on his modest, 32-seat byo becoming a sensation. But runaway success is a good problem to have.

Hamachi crudo with pistachios.
Hamachi crudo with pistachios.
Photo by Neal Santos

Chefs open their own restaurants for all sorts of reasons: money, fame, creative license. Philip Manganaro opened Park Place in tiny Merchantville, near Cherry Hill, for a different reason: his son.

“I am a divorced, single father with half custody of my son, Dean, which as a chef leaves me unavailable a lot of days of the week,” explains the 37-year-old Marlton resident and French Culinary Institute grad. In 2016, after leaving Keg & Kitchen in Westmont, where he was the chef, Manganaro began interviewing for new positions in Philly.

“I was being offered jobs and having the red carpet run out for me—until I explained my custody situation, at which point the looks on these peoples’ faces truly made me feel as though I had a disease.”

In January 2017, Manganaro took matters into his own hands and opened Park Place in a former kebab shop downtown. He did all the build-out himself, removing the takeout window, hanging new drywall and restoring an antique dresser as a perch for his gleaming Illy La Cimbali espresso machine.

Manganaro’s girlfriend, Francesca Venti, an investor in Park Place and a trained barista, is the hostess, the sole server and the maestro of the Cimbali.

In the kitchen, Manganaro creates captivating dishes with top-tier ingredients like white sturgeon and black trumpet mushrooms, which he forages in nearby woods. The mushrooms, sautéed and reduced to a buttery purée, create an earthy, inky backdrop for the moist, delicate, snow-white fish.

Colorado lamb shank, paired with West Coast chanterelles, yielded tender, braised meat under a gift wrap of thin, crispy skin. Ground venison shoulder became the basis for an adroit Bolognese, the meat’s pleasant gaminess mingling with house-made pappardelle in a long-simmered sauce involving mirepoix, vermouth, milk, chicken stock and Manganaro’s house-made tomato paste. The pappardelle are sent out under grated dark Belgian chocolate, which adds fragrance and a bittersweet top note.

Manganaro understands that simplicity can be as compelling as complexity. He showed this with a pair of iridescendent crudos—tuna belly, as marbled as wagyu beef, and yellowtail. Each was marinated in what he calls Manganaro’s magic oil, extra-virgin olive oil infused with a heady profusion of bay leaves, wild Jersey juniper berries, coriander, fennel, shallots, black peppercorns and serrano chilies. He topped the tuna with shaved artichokes and jeweled the yellowtail with fresh Sicilian pistachios, plump, green and sweet. Both received a finishing sprinkle of sea salt Manganaro makes by dehydrating Atlantic Ocean water.

While Park Place is Manganaro’s restaurant, Venti runs the front of the house. She’s got a fun, flitting, off-the-cuff energy and can expound on any dish, whether on the menu or a nightly special, the lengthy list of which she recites without missing a beat.

Manganaro says guests describe the BYO as “one large dinner party, or a bunch of small dinner parties, all going on at once.” That is accurate. As at a dinner party, you might open your own bottle of wine. That’s what I did one night, when a bustling but upbeat Venti simply handed me her corkscrew.

She ought to make better use of the bus person, who could help recite specials, make espresso drinks and deliver food instead of just filling water glasses.

Indeed, Park Place’s gustatory sophistication does not always carry over into service. Though the place is quite small (only 32 seats), you may not get menus as soon as you sit down. Venti might recite the specials, then dash off to the kitchen to pick up another table’s order. She’s in sync with the kitchen, staffed (as of our deadline) solely by Manganaro, but meals can be slow to get rolling. And there’s no bread to munch on while you wait.

Manganaro calls the tiny kitchen “the hardest I have ever worked in. There is an old loading ramp in it, and at times I only have five burners to cook on, because one is always taken up by my pasta water.”

To compensate, Venti spaces out the reservations and makes other adjustments. That doesn’t eliminate every bottleneck, “but usually by the end of the meal,” she maintains, “anyone who’s had a problem with our system has already made another reservation to return.”

Even though my review visits are done, I’m eager to return. Manganaro’s potatoes alone would draw me back. They accompany a ribeye steak but can be ordered as a side. Boiled with wild bay leaves and oregano, then fried, they’re puffed, crisp and well seasoned, some of the best spuds I’ve eaten. The steak is delicious, too, though its umami is not as profound as you’d expect of a cut aged a stupefying 76 days (at Rastelli Market in Evesham, where Venti was working and Manganaro shopping when they met in 2015).

Like the venison Bolognese, the tortellini filled with ground calf’s tongue and mascarpone, tossed in brown butter and topped with toasty pine nuts makes a strong case for carb loading. The fettuccine with clams is nice, but the herbed broth, while zesty, is too liquidy to stick to the pasta.

Some dishes need a tweak. Chicken liver paté is one-note—you don’t taste the shallots, garlic, red wine or bourbon—and the pear mostarda and caramelized onions with it are wan. The lovely bibb-lettuce salad studded with pomegranate seeds and zippy radish sprouts is swamped with honey-Dijon dressing. The entrée of pan-seared duck breast and confited leg flavored with candied calamansi (a kumquat-like citrus) feels incomplete without a vegetable. Red-snapper fillet, perfectly cooked and served over puréed black kale, firebombs your palate with a sauce made from sun-dried Abruzzese peppers.

Desserts, made in-house, are homey. Cakes, cut in generous wedges, come in flavors like subtle English walnut, sprightly sweet lemon (graced with Manganaro’s house-made limoncello), and fluffy olive oil and ricotta. Ice creams are dense, smooth and robust in flavor.

Manganaro opened Park Place to spend more time with his son, now 6. Suddenly, he’s got an extremely popular restaurant on his hands. Regulars have standing reservations. To meet demand, Manganaro has added a four-seat chef’s table in the kitchen. Park Place is open for dinner just Thursday through Saturday, plus Friday lunch and weekend brunch. He could add Monday through Wednesday and still be booked solid weeks in advance. But he says he has no intention of doing that. So be patient. Though Park Place isn’t perfect, it’s worth putting on speed dial.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American
  • Price Range:
    Expensive
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $14-$18; entrées, $27-$35; desserts, $7-$9
  • Ambience:
    Homelike, with music playing on an old phonograph
  • Service:
    Informed and warm, if overburdened
  • Wine list:
    BYO

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