Chef Michael Schulson Adds New Eateries To Philadelphia Portfolio
Michael Schulson likes pizza with a bite. Toppings are essential – but for the New York native, dough is an equally delicate matter. So when he opened his first pizzeria, Prunella, at 13th and Sansom St in Philadelphia, PA, Schulson knew what he needed to do.
“There are all of these gourmet doughs, starters, and all of this stuff,” Schulson explained. “What I don’t like about that pizza is that the crust is so thick, there’s no bite to it. There’s no crispiness, you can’t fold it over, it flops down. And I knew I didn’t want that.”
In pursuit of crispy, foldable crust, Schulson and his Philadelphia team created a cross between a New York-style slice and a personal pizza. They settled on a shareable, 14-inch pie, and it’s the pizza Schulson likes.
It’s his first time in the pizza business, but Michael Schulson is no stranger to the restaurant industry. As a hospitality professional, Schulson understands how the right space – and the proper dough – can transform a standard meal into a culinary experience.
In 2008, Schulson opened his first restaurant, Izakaya, in Atlantic City. The Japanese pub marked the beginning of the Schulson Collective, which expanded to Philadelphia in 2009. That year, Schulson introduced Sampan, which became a fast favorite among Philly foodies. Schulson’s Philadelphia assortment now includes Double Knot, Graffiti Bar, Independence Beer Garden, and other hotspots.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, restaurants closed throughout the U.S., and Philadelphia’s food scene – though vibrant – fell suit. Yet the availability of new real estate allowed Schulson to extend his reach in Philadelphia. Suddenly, he had “all the time in the world” to consider his next move in Philly – and he used this time to design Prunella.
While Schulson cannot understate the power of crispy crust, he attributes much of Prunella’s success to the space itself. Diners are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, natural lighting, and an iconic photo wall. In this bright, airy setting, guests tend to linger long after the final bite.
After Prunella’s successful reception in 2022, Schulson sought to replicate its intimate aesthetic in other Philly-based eateries. Earlier this year, he opened Samuel’s, an all-day deli that makes sandwiches, meats, pastries, and traditional, water-boiled bagels.
Like Prunella, Samuel’s stems from Schulson’s New York roots. Schulson describes the deli as an homage to his grandfather, “Poppy,” who owned a kosher butcher shop in the Bronx. To reduce expenses, Samuel’s makes everything in-house, fresh daily. “There’s a reason that deli food was enjoyed for so long,” says Schulson, who believes in the value of delis done right – and with an eye toward younger consumers who patron both brunch and happy hour.
In November, Schulson added one more spot to complete his latest Philly trio: Pearl & Mary, an oyster bar on the corner of 13th St and Sansom. After Happy Hour at Prunella, diners can cross the street to Pearl & Mary, which is named after Schulson’s mother, Pearl, and “Nana,” Mary. Every day, the bar features nine different raw bar selections, seafood entrees, and assorted crudo. With indoor and outdoor dining, the seafood spot seats 115 guests on a busy evening.
“We’re focused on the freshest seafood and most local vendors we can work with,” says Schulson, coupled with a stylish-yet-accessible ambience that’s become characteristic of his collective. At Pearl & Mary, this means elevated dishes, fresh cocktails, and open windows that let in the light – and the city life – from the corner of 13th and Sansom St.
From Schulson’s perspective, many restaurants faced the pandemic without the “money in the bank” to sustain and grow their businesses. But Schulson entered 2020 with a slew of profitable, Philly-based eateries behind him.
With the necessary funds and local acclaim, Schulson views the post-2020 landscape as an opportunity to rediscover – and ultimately, celebrate – North America’s favorite pastime. It’s not football, he says: it’s food. “People love to eat more than ever before. If you think about food, it consumes us more than football.”
“Ultimately, we want to build beautiful, fun restaurants that people feel good in, which means great heating and AC, lighting, and design. We want to serve excellent food with a high perceived value.” In Philadelphia, Schulson achieves this goal with remarkable consistency, and he plans to unroll similar concepts in New York, Atlantic City, and Miami.
As he builds the collective, Schulson remains mindful of what it means to eat well. In the U.S., he says, fads often cloud the simplicity of good food. During a recent trip to Paris, Schulson ate unabashedly: his meals included steak frites, onion soup, and baguettes covered in butter. He felt great – but after his first bite in the U.S., Schulson felt bloated and awful.
The culprit? Processed, fad-driven fare. “We have all of these fads to circumvent the concept of just eating right,” Schulson says. Of course, “eating right” is an expansive phrase. To Schulson, a trained chef and restaurateur, it means savoring handmade pizza, grabbing a fresh sandwich from a neighborhood deli, and knowing the name of his “fish guy,” Sam, who sources oysters for Pearl & Mary.
Wherever they choose to dine, Schulson simply wants his guests to eat well. In each of his restaurants, diners are surrounded by light, friends, and family. And regardless of the menu, they’re treated to cuisine that, somewhat miraculously, melds classic flavors, fresh tastes, and the buzz of Philadelphia in every bite.
For more information on Michael Schulson, his new Philadelphia restaurants, and more, visit his website.
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