“I’m shocked at how nice everyone is!” That’s the first thing Phil Diou, owner of Little Phil’s Artisanal Delicatessen said when I asked the stock question: “So, how’s everything going so far?”
It seems to me, (and I hope I’m correct) that Montclair, is on the cusp of an upswing. There have been several well received new openings within the last few months, Brick Lane most recently, and Tapastry a couple of months ago, and others. The reappearance of a familiar blackboard on Valley Road and Bellevue Avenue, this time signaling the arrival of Little Phil’s. So what is Little Phil’s? Who is Phil? And why is he “Little”?
Let’s begin at the beginning. Little Phil’s is a new “artisanal delicatessen” in Upper Montclair Plaza, in the space formerly occupied by Tallmadge Cheese Market. After a visit to Phil’s, I’m far more inclined to describe the eatery as a bistro, simply because the quality of Phil’s food is far beyond that commonly associated with the word “deli.”
Little Phil’s is owned by thirty-six year-old, Philip Diou. Phil is originally from Paterson, but grew up in Wayne, and currently lives in Randolph. His mother is Sicilian and his father is of Italian, Spanish and French heritage.
Phil grew up as an only child, who willingly spent an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen with his mother and his grandmother, whom he endearingly refers to as “Nonna.” Phil spoke with fondness of those early days, and recounted how he would often ask his mother if he could stay home from school just to cook with her.
If Phil is an only child, why the name Little Phil? Turns out, both of Phil’s grandfathers were named Phil, his father was Phil, and his older cousin was also named Phil. So, when the family got together, to avoid confusion, he was called “Little Phil.” Very practical!
When Phil was fourteen, his mother bought a café in Pompton Lakes. Phil began busing tables and soon became the grill cook. This marked the beginning of his culinary career which took him to New England Culinary School in Vermont, then to the Macaroni Grill, Bruschetta, in Fairfield, NJ, Aramark, Johnson & Johnson, and a period as co-owner of Il Panino, a deli also in Fairfield, NJ.
Little Phil’s’ is the first operation Phil has owned solely. The food at Little Phil’s’ is heavily influenced by his Italian roots – specifically his mother and “Nonna.” At Little Phil’s guests could select from a vast array of traditional Italian food like meatballs, rice balls (arancini), broccoli rabe, portabella mushrooms, capellini pie, cavatelli salad, and braised short ribs.
At Phil’s, it’s honest cooking all the way. Phil roasts his own turkey and his own roast beef. Other products are brought in from Food Matters, a purveyor of smaller artisanal products. Phil says, “If I’m not making the food myself, I know who’s making it.”
There is also an espresso bar and a selection of desserts, like house-made ricotta cookies, balsamic cherry tarts, éclairs, sugar twists, and - be still my beating heart - chocolate dipped figs!
Grandma “Nonna” is as present in the food as she is in the décor. The space, which has been updated to accommodate 20 diners, is full of relics from “Nonna”. The top half of her first credenza has been lovingly transplanted and hung on the wall in the delicatessen. The bottom of the credenza is under the cash register. “Nonna’s” old Singer sewing machine is atop the beverage refrigerator, while her tomato mill and pasta machine are perched on a shelf behind the counter.
“Everyone has been so sweet, and seem to be really on my team. Local vendors have been great – coming over and introducing themselves. The community is there.”
And how could we not be? Phil is a charming, well-humored, affable, amiable, and enthusiastic guy! So enthusiastic in fact, that during my visit he broke out a giant wedge of pecorino and almost an entire wheel of provolone, just to show it to me! Foodies always bond over cheese I suppose.
Little Phil’s offers breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, 8 am – 9 pm. Remember, BYOB is welcomed. By September Phil is planning to offer a prix fixe menu of possibly six items on Mondays through Thursday, then have specialty, family style tasting menus on Fridays and Saturdays.