Friday, April 13, 2007

Easter at Osteria

The annual Philadelphia Film Festival is in full swing right now. We had tickets to a self-constructed double feature on Easter Sunday night so we figured, what better day to head for an early dinner at Marc Vetri’s new outpost, Osteria (640 N. Broad Street at Wallace). When calling for a reservation (which is essential) we were denied a table at 5:00 but offered one at 5:30. Knowing that the timing was an effort on the restaurant’s part to stagger tickets in the kitchen, we presumptuously arrived a few minutes after 5:00 as we didn’t want to have to rush through dinner to make our first screening. Greeted at the door by one, then two and finally three suit bound hosts and hostesses, we were told our reservation wasn’t actually until 5:45. After a few moments of deliberation though, we were graciously seated at a spacious two-top near the center of the room, adjacent to the lengthy chef’s bar.

Osteria is a big space, befitting of its setting in a rather wide open section of North Broad Street. High ceilings have been left unfinished, exposing duct work and lending a modern loft look which balances out the warm, rustic tones of the wooden tables and bars. Loads and loads of windows let in plenty of natural light and showcase panoramic views of the church next door – and of the Meineke shop across the street. Taking a page right out of Batali’s book at Babbo, pop music is cranked up fairly loudly. The twist here is that the music is pseudo-Italian. We heard covers of REM and U2 mixed in with some rather insipid Italipop. So much for the soundtrack – we hoped the food would prove to be worth the ear-sore.

The menu is classically Italian in structure, broken into sections for Antipasti, Primi, Secondi and Contorni. A pizza list adds a bow toward the casual intentions of Marc’s new enterprise. Here I must say Osteria is intended to be a more casual and less expensive alternative to Vetri Ristorante. It is. However, a look around at the décor and staff and a quick perusal of the menu make it clear that Osteria is not terribly casual and is quite expensive. Pizzas range from $15-24; antipasti from $10-16; primi are priced in the high teens; entrees land in the high $20s; and contorni at $8-10 a pop could quickly push the entrée ensemble into the $40 range. Do the math and the bill for a multi-course meal adds up fast.

As a saving grace, the modest wine list is, especially for Pennsylvania, quite reasonable. The most expensive bottle I noticed was a good deal at $81, the 2001 Barbaresco “Canova” from Cascina Vano. And most of the list comes in at under $50 per bottle. Though I didn’t ask, the numerous empty bottles of Sassicaia displayed around the room and the rear wall, which is decorated with wooden crate ends from high-end Italian juice, lead me to suspect that there may be a reserve list available for those looking to drop more coin. Of the handful of wines available by the glass, we settled for a couple of different whites – I for a glass of 2005 Pieropan Soave Classico and my wife Lori for some Prosecco – and got down to the business of deciding what to eat.

After listening to the fairly extensive list of daily specials, we opted to work mostly from the regular menu, though it was tough to pass up the Easter special of stuffed spring lamb. Lori opted for an Antipasto and Primo combination; I went with a Primo and Secondo. Here’s what we ordered:

  • Wood grilled octopus, cured lemon, potato and chives (antipasto)
  • Candele with wild boar bolognese (primo)
  • Capon tortellini with sage brown butter (special primo)
  • “Casoeula” braised pork ribs and sausage with cabbage and soft polenta (secondo)
The clear standout was the wood grilled octopus. Nearly whole (headless) baby octopi, incredibly tender and flavorful, were paired with well-chosen flavor enhancers: slivers of preserved lemon, perfectly firm little cubes of potato and quality olive oil. The boar Bolognese served over candele – long, extruded pasta (think of extraordinarily lengthy ziti) – was comforting and hearty, only lightly influenced by tomato, much more highly informed by slow cooking and mellow seasoning. If there was any disappointment to be found, it was in the slightly under-seasoned tortellini. The pasta component was supremely delicate, as was the mild, tender capon filling. The aroma of ample, rich butter rose from the plate but its color and flavors were still on the fresh side, lacking the nutty depth of a well-browned butter sauce. And for me, the sage element was just a little too subtle. The braised pork ribs, offering a perfect balance between the heartiness of braising and the slightly lighter ingredients of encroaching spring, were done to fall-off-the-bone perfection. The rustic sausage, like all of the cured meats on the menu save the Prosciutto di Parma, is made in-house.

To accompany everything, we selected a bottle of 2004 Langhe Nebbiolo “Perbacco” from Vietti, a large but very reliable producer of mostly estate bottled Piedmont wines. At $40 per bottle, it’s one of the best bargains on the list. Though served at too warm a temperature, it showed well – once it cooled down on the table – and worked admirably with most of the food. Warm red wine is one of my biggest restaurant service peeves. Though the bottles were not stored in the worst scenario – the kitchen – they were sitting out in service station shelving units around the room, exposed to the warming effects of sunlight on the back of the wood and computer screens below. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that the wine actually cooled down once poured and left on the table. There is a wine room, presumably temperature controlled, in Osteria. Even if it means twenty extra steps for the service staff, the reds, not just the whites and beers, should be cellared. Luckily the whites were poured at a proper, slightly cool temperature, circumventing the all too common fate of being served ice cold.

Our early arrival had worked out well, leaving us just enough time to enjoy dessert and coffee before heading to the theatre. The desserts were perfectly acceptable if not memorable. The chocolate flan with pistachio gelato turned out to be nothing other than a well-executed version of the now ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. I absolutely love pistachio gelato when it’s done well; this one was just a little too heavy on the custard and, as a result, on the palate. Polenta budino with giandula delivered a predictably rustic, savory dessert. Its flavors were harmonious and satisfying. In retrospect though, I should have skipped dessert in favor of a pizza or antipasto at the beginning of the meal. Urged on by Rick Nichols’ recent write-up of Vetri’s coffee fetish, I couldn’t pass up topping everything off with a double espresso. I did need to stay awake through two movies after all. A good brew it was, hearty, with just the right bitter/sweet balance and an admirable crema.

With just a little work on some minor service issues and perhaps a rethinking of the music selections, Osteria could easily become one of Philly’s most attractive dining destinations. I’m looking forward to a revisit. The chef’s bar, the salumi plate and the pizza list are calling me now.

610 North Broad Street (at Wallace)
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Osteria in Philadelphia

More recent visits to Osteria:

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