“I didn’t come to Philly to open a restaurant. It just kind of happened,” says Pietramala’s chef and owner Ian Graye.
Just over a year old in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, the vegan restaurant’s close–knit team of cooks, house staff, farmers, fermenters, and foragers have made it their mission to put plants on a pedestal. Stepping off the Market–Frankford Line, a minute or so from Spring Garden Station, anyone would be lucky to stumble into the warm heaven of a green suede Pietramala booth.
Here, you might start with Golden Beets slathered in homemade vegan mayonnaise, topped with caraway seeds, a dark leafy bed of sour chard, and a few precious potato chips sliced paper thin. Then there’s the Market Lettuces, a glorious pile of everything bright, crunchy, and crisp: watermelon radish, chicory, fennel, popped spelt, all under a tangy vinaigrette. You'd bet money there was blue cheese in there, but actually that’s the garlic, fermented in–house, and cashew cheese, fermented by a local brand to perfection.
Then the mains will arrive. Smokey cabbage, cooked over coal until so tender you can pull it apart, and served bathed in sauce and oils ringing of celery (which Pietramala has you eating like you’d never expect), mizuna, and horseradish. Or you get the Maitake Mushroom, likely picked just that morning, crisp on the outside and meaty–fresh on the inside. Or the Maltagliati, hearty durum wheat pasta glazed beneath sungold tomato sauce. The plate is golden and sweet and acidic—you might even decide their chicken of the woods mushrooms are better than chicken.
Beside you, an open kitchen hums with the Pietramala team moving in effortless rhythm. It’s a pace reminiscent of the RUSH tunes they blasted during prep.
The hum, the hard work and happy conversation, the heat of stewed tomatoes and well–fed customers, the vines snaking the exposed ducts, ceiling, and warm brick walls—everything in the space moves in perfect harmony.
While the opening of Pietramala was unplanned, spontaneous might be better thought of as serendipitous.
“We’re making it work, and I think people are liking it," Graye says. "I just want them to come here, have a good time, and maybe have their eyes opened a little to what you can do with just vegetables and plants.”
But perhaps equal to their mission of making good food, Pietramala grew out of that collective post–COVID–19–pandemic reckoning with low pay, long hours, and general mistreatment in the service industry: “I was like, ‘Do I really want to go back and work for people like this?’ So that was a big push for me to try to make a space for people to be creative and be themselves and be human beings, rather than these machines that only obey.”
When this ideal workspace didn’t exist, Graye figured, why not make it himself?
This streak of self–sufficiency extends into the rest of Graye's work as well. Miso, among other things, is fermented in house. Small, local vendors and farmers are hand picked. The menu relies on no meat substitutes.
“We’re making these things from scratch so we can control the quality of everything that we use along the way and make sure that it meets our standards,” he says.
This methodology applies to Graye himself, who started without experience 12 years ago at a restaurant where his friends worked. He rose from dishwasher to chef to lead chef to sous chef to head chef in just over the course of a year and a half, teaching himself through observation, cookbooks, and practice.
His dedication is the kind that comes innately to those who have found their calling. From the delicate plating, to thoughtful produce purchases, personally foraged mushrooms (thanks Max! He’s their on–hand expert in that arena), and firm handshakes from Shaq (the head of house)—this is the passionate work of a team that enjoys what they do.
As for the place of veganism in modern restaurants, Graye states, “I think just in, maybe, the last half decade, we’ve seen a huge leap forward. There’s been more of a focus across the board of people wanting quality, and wanting to know the providence of their ingredients, what they’re paying for.”
It’s Graye’s invocation of providence that makes me pause. I’m thrust into the divine and I suddenly realize that this is what he's been working towards the entire time. Whether consciously or not, he handles the plants he serves with a reverence that borders on spirituality, fully devoted to each step of the process. Everything he does pays tribute to the inseparability of food and nature, of food and perfection of the wild, native, real.
While I can’t be certain where he stands on the larger higher powers at play, it is clear that Graye believes in the higher power of plants, good food and working alongside one another to make it. He believes in Pietramala.
“We built this and we’ve made it our home. I just want to keep working and make sure my staff is happy and that people are eating well.”
Then, true to his humble nature, Graye puts it even simply: “I mean, I’d just like to stay open.”
TL;DR: This intimate vegan restaurant based in the Northern Liberties focuses on local Philly produce and providence.
Location: 614 N 2nd Street
Hours: 5–9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday