At the nexus of Grey’s Ferry Avenue and South Street is illata, a discreet BYOB that’s quickly become one of Philadelphia’s hottest tickets. Here, chef-owner Aaron Randi and his tiny team of five are appealing to neighborhood diners with extraordinary, simple comfort food — and it’s gaining traction. Expect sourdough baked fresh daily, hits like spaghetti alle vongole, plus nostalgic desserts like brown butter tart with creme fraiche.
As a 20-something-seat restaurant, illata has already been able to cultivate an atmosphere that invokes intimate dinners with family and loved ones, complete with candle-lit tables and thoughtful mini flower bouquets. The small space also means making a Resy takes some patience. We sat down with Aaron Randi to learn how to get you into illata, especially as fall reservations are filling up quickly.
Resy: How big is the staff at illata?
Randi: Five people: two on the floor, two cooks, and one dishwasher.
What time does the dining room open?
Open Thursday through Monday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
How many seats are there at illata? What about bar seating?
There are 16 seats for tables, plus six seats at the bar.
When do reservations drop on Resy?
A month out.
Are any of the seats held for walk-ins?
Four bar seats are held for walk-ins, while two bar seats are available for a Resy, which we do to cater to the volume of people waiting on Notify. Plus, there are three tables outside available for walk-ins as long as the weather holds.
What’s the best time for a walk-in to come by to get seated promptly?
Either right at 5 p.m. or at 7 p.m. or again at 8:30 p.m. Due to the turnover times, that’s when there’s a chance to get a table.
Regulars come in and recognize folks from across the room. Some four tops will constantly rebook every month and bring the same Tequila and ask for lime. It’s a lively place where people feel welcome.— Aaron Randi, chef-owner of illata
Do you have a favorite spot in the restaurant?
The four-top table near the large front windows (especially when they’re open) near the pendant light. I like that table because you can get a view of the whole restaurant.
How many turns or covers do you do on your busiest nights?
On a busy night, we do three full turns or 60 covers, which means all seats have been filled three times over.
How long is your Resy Notify list on average?
Most recently, at least 99 people for a Saturday in mid-September. Sometimes we reach out to people on Notify by text, a call, or Instagram DM about a table that opens up to schedule another time.
Are there certain days or times when there’s a better chance to score a prime-time reservation?
Mondays are typically a good bet to get a spot.
You recently launched a popular bread-to-go program. Tell us how one can score a sourdough loaf.
Our general manager Sophie Wieber, who helped develop the bread recipe for the restaurant, is super creative and loves everything bread-related. She proposed the idea that on Wednesdays she’d come up with a different loaf and do seven of them (due to the small kitchen space) to try new flavors and see how people react on Instagram. Now, people DM us to hold a loaf, and they usually sell out in an hour. We have people who know we post around noon or 1 p.m. and get their order in every single time. It’s challenging though — we have to bake bread for service and these specialty loaves.
How would you describe the illata menu — and what should a first-timer order?
illata is a modern American restaurant that tries to highlight good seafood in the area with an approachable menu of familiar ingredients. The menu is meant to be shared and guests are encouraged to order the whole menu. There are between eight and 10 dishes in total.
We like to change the menu with the seasons. As we go into the fall, it’ll be a massive switch. I always recommend the bread and butter, and the mussels. The beloved chicken schnitzel is gone, but we have a new steak dish with sauce vin jaune, peppadew peppers, and turnip greens.
On a recent visit, Philly music darlings Japanese Breakfast dominated the playlist. Can you tell us more about what music is played inside the restaurant?
I create all the playlists — it’s very important to me. I’ll spend many hours trying to develop four or five playlists to change the music depending on the mood of the restaurant. If I see people talking loud and it seems like a party, I’ll change the genre of music to reflect that.
Since illata is BYOB, any pro-tips to share about wine pairings?
Kai Feinberg and Cameron Kelsall from the Moore Brothers Wine Company in Pennsauken, New Jersey have come in a bunch as diners and done a really good job at talking to their customers back at their wine shop and suggesting bottles to bring in.
Sergio Germano Rosanna sparkling rosé ($34) goes really well with most illata dishes. Brunori San Nicolo ($20) is a classic seafood white wine with notes of preserved lemon, almond, and saline minerality should be paired with illata’s vongole pasta, mussels, or scallops. Bosco Donne Barbera ($21) from Gianni Doglia would be excellent with the steak. It is a juicy, cherry-fruited red wine with silky tannins
How does one become a regular at illata?
Regulars come in and recognize folks from across the room. Some four tops will constantly rebook every month and bring the same Tequila and ask for lime. It’s a lively place where people feel welcome.
Chat with a server to make a follow-up Resy or chat with us on Instagram to get a spot.
Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?
I love the fall and the cold weather. I love feeling warm and homey and want people to be really comfortable and enjoy their meal here that reflects the season. I’m excited about giving people different food to eat with this upcoming menu change.