Longtime Review columnist passes away at the age of 70

Phyllis Stein-Novack, who contributed a cuisine series for 20 years, was a notability of the paper.

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Cuisine columnist Phyllis Stein-Novack serving as a judge at the Review’s first Pizzapalooza. (Photo special to SPR)

Prolific South Philly Review cuisine columnist Phyllis Stein-Novack passed away at the age of 70 on July 30 at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital after a prolonged battle with illness. 

The Southwest Philadelphia native contributed to the Review for two decades with her iconic food series, which reviewed, raved and sometimes reviled restaurants around the Philadelphia region. 

An an avid longtime freelance writer, Stein-Novack’s byline appeared in several local publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News and the former Mid-Atlantic County magazine. 

Though Stein-Novack, a graduate of Lower Merion High School and Temple University, covered some other topics, such as the arts, Edward Novack, her husband of close to 40 years, says her heart rested in restaurant reviews. 

“She had no favorite meal,” he said. “She enjoyed almost every cuisine.”

After being born in Southwest Philadelphia, Stein-Novack and her family relocated to Lower Merion. Novack says his wife’s palette for fine cuisine partially developed as a child when she’d frequent the Vesper Club, as her father was a member of the private institution.

Aside from her successful career as a writer, Stein says one of the highlights of his wife’s life included working on the presidential campaign of George McGovern when she was in her early 20s.

When Stein-Novack started her distinguished column with the Review in the mid-1990s, which concluded in 2016, Novack recalls his wife’s peculiar but precise desires when evaluating each meal – even at the most popular newest eateries. 

For Stein-Novack, dishes served anything less than piping hot were simply not passable by her standards – and taste buds. 

“You shouldn’t have to send it back, because it’s not hot. Phyllis would request the food to be served the way it should be all the time,” he said. “The fact of the matter is she knew as much as the chef or more than the chef.”

Though Stein-Novack was highly regarded by renowned Philadelphia chefs, Stein notes her networking with world-famous culinary artists, such as Julia Child and Jacques Pépin – two icons she encountered through International Association of Cooking Professionals events and the Book and the Cook, a Philly festivity that coupled cookbook authors and restaurants.

“They considered her as a peer…They considered her at their level,” Novack said. 

Stein-Novack, who also wrote a book titled The Book and the Cook, a collection of menus and recipes, chronicled her experiences with such eminent chefs in the South Philly Review

“Memories of Julia (Child) still mingle in my mind,” she wrote in an August 2009 issue in response the Nora Ephron film Julie & Julia. “She brought French cuisine to America and proved anyone — even Julie Powell and I — can master the art of French cooking.”

When Child passed away in 2004, Stein-Novack did not hesitate to toast the chef who helped revolutionize American cooking of French cuisine.

Stein-Novack recollects Child’s crucial influence on her own approach to the art of cooking. 

Thousands of meals later, I still carry Julia in my heart when I sniff a peach, roast a capon, whip egg whites and open a bottle of wine,” she wrote in an August 2004 issue of the Review. “She prepared what we thought were fancy French dishes early in her television career and, 40 years later, we all realized less is more, and simple and fresh are better…I met Julia on a number of occasions. She was 6-foot-2 and one very funny lady.”

Like her stories about Julia Child, Stein-Novack’s Review cuisine columns sometimes paid tribute to chefs she admired, including Pépin. 

“I met Pépin on several occasions,” she wrote in an August 2011 issue of the Review. “He bought me a glass of champagne during a Book and the Cook dinner at Jake’s in Manayunk. We settled in and enjoyed dinner. Pépin is a soft-spoken, affable man and fun to be with. I have never taken a cooking class, but I have watched him teach on a few occasions. He is the master when it comes to teaching the art of French cuisine.”

Stein notes that, although his wife had a zeal for any meal, she had an exceptional fervor for  French cuisine. 

He says she’d eat just about anything – as long as it was prepared correctly and creatively. 

“We could clean up eating clams and oysters all the time,” Stein said. “But she liked hot dogs, too.”

While Stein-Novack’s prose have spanned across several themes, publications and decades across the region, her legacy will evermore remain as a notability of the South Philly Review.

Her words and wisdom will live in the hearts of our former and current staff.

“For your readers, those who were following her when she was writing, will remember her as being opinionated,” Novack said. “She came across as knowledgeable and sometimes funny. She put herself into the story. She made it personable.”

Stein-Novack is survived by her husband, sister, nieces and nephews. 

A graveside service was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4, at Har Yehuda Cemetery, 8400 Lansdowne Ave. in Upper Darby.

gmaiorano@newspapermediagroup.com 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano