People love a good transformation. Whether it’s watching a house go from shag carpet and wood-paneled walls to shiplap and showroom furniture, or pausing on a YouTube video called “Makeup Artist Turns Herself Into Ron Swanson (Time Lapse),” we all enjoy seeing one thing turn into something else. And no place does that better than Res Ipsa, a casual all-day cafe in Rittenhouse that transforms each night to become one of our favorite Italian BYOBs.
If you walk by Res Ipsa during the day, you’d probably think the cafe with the neon diamond in the window was just another quick spot to grab a sandwich on your lunch break. And to some degree it is. You’ll see people working on their laptops and eating a lot of the same food as most other trendy cafes, but that’s where the similarities stop. Unlike the rest of the nearby fast casual places, Res Ipsa impresses you with the simplest things, like a grilled chicken sandwich smothered with apple mostarda and a bowl of fried potatoes - crunchy, salty, perfect potatoes.
photo credit: Max Grudzinski
Where they get to show that off the most though, is when they reopen for dinner. That’s when Res Ipsa goes from Steve Carell, beloved man of comedy, to Steve Carell, Oscar-nominated dramatic actor. The lights are turned down, there are candles everywhere, and the tables that used to be pushed to the side are now expertly arranged to make the most of the tiny space. Even after this place flips the switch, it still manages to keep just enough of the daytime laid-back attitude that makes you feel like you’re not really “Out” with a capital “O.” Rather than a guest at someone’s fancy dinner party where you’d worry if it’s inappropriate to crawl under the table to get out and go to the bathroom, you’re just hanging out at your friend’s house - a friend who happens to make some really great pasta.
And the pasta is what you want to focus on here. Order as many half-portions as possible and create a kaleidoscope of pasta dishes on your table. Disclaimer: we’re not sure exactly what a kaleidoscope of pasta entails, but it sounds like something we want to be a part of. There’s always an orecchiette on the menu with mushrooms and a light creamy sauce that should be a part of your collection, and a lemony spaghetti alle vongole that would have our vote on American Idol if that was still a show that anyone watched. The rest rotate seasonally, but even if one of your favorite pastas disappears, there’ll be a new one that’s just as good waiting to help get you through the hurt.
Bring a date and a bottle of wine here the next time you’re in the mood for Italian food, split the octopus and a few pastas, and then retire to a couch and spend the rest of your night with a Fixer Upper marathon. Or, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, try looking up what a makeup artist’s sink looks like after they wash Ron Swanson off their face. Enjoy.
Roasted Red Peppers
If you want to start your meal with some antipasti, go with the roasted red peppers. They’re mixed with capers, raisins, and a few anchovies, and are the best way to eat some vegetables before the pasta starts rolling in.
Sweet and smokey at the same time, and served on top of a pile of perfectly cooked lentils. Out of all of the small plates, this one is consistently the best.
This pasta is really more like a soup - a soup that we’d like to take with us in a tupperware to our in-laws’ house and earn brownie points by pretending we made it ourselves.
Spaghetti Alle Vongole
This is exactly how we like our spaghetti alle vongole - lemony and light with a salty seafood broth at the bottom. The only thing that could possibly improve this dish would be having it delivered to your table by a singing Josh Groban.
It’s hard to pick favorites, but if we had to, the orecchiette probably wins. It’s not super heavy, and the combination of the mushrooms and the light but buttery sauce it comes with makes every other pasta on the menu look like the five-foot-four kid on a high school basketball team.
The gnocchi itself is good, but the sauce doesn’t have a ton of flavor. Considering how many great pasta options there are on the menu, you can skip this one.
If you’re here with a date and decide that there’s more to life than pasta, the whole fish is an excellent dish to split. It’s so large that it comes on two separate plates, with the fish on one and all of the vegetables and potatoes it was cooked with on the other. If we didn’t fill up on pasta every time we came here, we’d definitely order this more often.