The Phoenix rises again to serve up fresh, affordable fare

The bird of Egyptian mythology known as the phoenix rises from its own ashes and is born anew. The same could be said of the Altoona restaurant of the same name.

The Phoenix Restaurant, once the Columbia Hotel in the 1800s and then in the 1940s, the Phoenix Hotel and Grill, has had several owners through the years and has rebounded from two fires.

Today, current owner Tony Russo and his crew, which includes head chef Curtis Biesecker, chef and kitchen manager Scott Sheedy, pastry chef Curtis Drost, front-end manager and bartender Michele Lepore and Russo’s wife, Phyllis, have been doing their parts to bring customers a dining experience featuring fresh dishes.

“Our idea is to do everything fresh from scratch,” said Russo, who opened his restaurant in December 2012.

They do not use any frozen products, Biesecker said.

“We get our pork from some people up in Philipsburg who raise an heirloom-style pig and butcher it the way we want it. There’s a local cheesemaker over in Clover Creek that we’ve been in touch with and we’re going to try to incorporate some of their cheeses … and we use a lot of local produce when we can,” he said.

The chefs use fresh herbs from a garden planted next to the restaurant, Biesecker said. They also allow the time of year to dictate the menu; for example, using ripe strawberries from Sinking Valley in dishes when they are plucked for the season, Russo said.

They are not following a trend of going local.

“But that was the idea all along,” Russo said. “We didn’t look at it as a trend. We looked at it as kind of like the right thing to do.”

They have also aimed to give quality food at affordable prices, making it a place people will turn to for an everyday meal, and not just for special occasions, Biesecker said.

Apparently it’s working.

“We do really well on the weekends,” Lepore said. “Friday and Saturday crowds are really good. We have a lot of people calling to make reservations because right from the get-go, we were getting pretty packed on the weekends, and we were telling them you need to probably call and reserve a spot or you may have to wait for tables. It’s not very large in here.”

The Phoenix’s one-room dining area and bar was reconfigured and renovated inside.

Phyllis Russo also adds her touch here and there. Table settings get a cloth napkin she embroidered with a symbol of a phoenix.

The menu at The Phoenix is smaller than diners may expect. Regular menu entrees total 11.

“Our small menu is a reflection of the fact that we do everything fresh and everything from scratch,” Biesecker said.

In addition to the regular menu items, they offer two or three specials every day, said Biesecker, who, along with Sheedy, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

Other menu items include the grilled polenta and sausage appetizer, a roasted beet salad with gorgonzola, red onion and golden delicious apples tossed with balsamic vinaigrette, and the grilled rib-eye steak topped with a garlic butter demi-glace. They also use old-school recipes such as the one for meatballs from Russo’s mother.

Drost makes pastries and desserts daily.

“His coconut cream pie is out of this world,” Lepore said. “That’s a real favorite.”

Regular customer Justin McCaulley of Altoona has been going to the Phoenix about once a week since his family friend opened the restaurant.

He appreciates them making vegan meals for his wife, Carlee. He also enjoys the fresh food, he said.

McCaulley orders the specials, but the Haddock Romano is one his favorites from the regular menu, he said. The fish is sauteed in a light parmesan garlic butter with white wine butter sauce.

The restaurant offers friendly service, he said.

“The waitresses are great,” he said. “Tony and Phyllis are there usually and greeting people and making sure the food’s prepared to everybody’s liking. Curt [Biesecker], the chef, is great, and like I said with my wife being vegan he’s always willing to see what … kind of ingredients they have and see what he can put together for [her].”

They’ve held on to some traditions at the restaurant such as serving baked Haddock.

“Prime rib on Saturdays. Crab cakes. We think we’ve improved on all those items,” Russo said. “And some of the old owners have come in and they give us the thumbs up.”

Regular customers are also seemingly another tradition for the restaurant once referred to as Altoona’s “Cheers.”

“We have people who will come in every single Friday, every single Saturday,” Lepore said. “We know what they drink. We know what they like to order.”

They suspected retaining old customers might pose a challenge, but found that wasn’t the case, Biesecker said.

“We’ve talked to, at this point, hundreds of people who used to come to some of the old incarnations of this place, and you never know how that’s going to go,” he said. “We kept some of those dishes that the place was famous for, but we’ve done a lot of new things, and people really like it.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.