Every tradition has to start somewhere. For my wife and I, this one started a year ago (in retrospect), with our first meal at Osteria, which just happened to be on Easter Sunday. So when Easter rolled around this year and we had none of the usual family plans, my wife suggested a repeat. And there you have it, a tradition in the making.
In the course of the last year, we made it back to Osteria on several occasions (including lunch just a couple of days prior to Easter), enough for me substantiate and build upon my original impressions. I felt strongly enough about the overall experience at Osteria to call it the best new restaurant in Philadelphia in my 2007 year-end roundup. I still feel that way. Apparently I’m not alone, as Philadelphia Magazine rated Osteria as number one in their first ever Philly Mag 50, while Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer awarded it a solid three bells.
Our most recent visit clarified many of the strengths of Osteria, showing growth in some areas yet pointing out further room for improvement in others. Antipasti and primi, along with fantastic pizzas, are consistently the stars of the lineup.
Pancetta wrapped snail “spiedini” grilled with celery root purée and truffle parsley butter
My antipasto for the evening showcased the chef’s willingness to reflect pan-European influences. French-inspired snails, with a parsley butter and celeriac dipping sauce, were wrapped up in Italian cured pork. Skewering those little morsels of goodness and grilling them over a wood fire threw in a little tapas influence for good measure. The escargots were complemented rather than dominated by the salty goodness of the pancetta and the richness of the sauce. This would be a great dish to replicate for caterers in search of something more interesting to replace the ubiquitous bacon wrapped scallops.
Chicken liver rigatoni with cipolline onions and sage
The ragu of chicken livers and cipollini adorning my choice of primo epitomizes Osteria’s approach. Take a country-style dish – herbs from the garden, a quick homemade batch of pasta and an inexpensive cut/portion of meat – and elevate it to the sublime through spot-on execution. Large pipes of rigatoni were an inspired choice of pasta, allowing for tastes from the top of the bowl that just hinted at the creaminess of the sauce yet permitting one to dig deep for a hearty scoop of the liver and onion-rich sauce.
Rabbit “casalinga” with pancetta, sage, brown butter and soft polenta
Secondi seem to be the Achilles’ heel in Osteria’s trifecta, consistently falling short of their potential and stepping down rather than up a notch relative to the quality of the preceding courses. Case in point, although at the extreme end of the spectrum compared to previous experiences, was this house specialty (casalinga). Three small morsels of on-the-bone rabbit, braised in red wine and then roasted over the kitchen’s wood fire, were served on a bed of soft polenta spiked with little nuggets of pancetta. In the darker meat portions, the rabbit was juicy and flavorful; however, the leaner sections were dry and chewy. Intensely caramelized brown butter and reduced wine, combined with heavily smoked polenta and pancetta, imbued the dish with inconsistent flavor pockets. One bite was intoxicatingly sweet and smoky, the next too much so, hinting at the acrid scent of burnt rubber.
Goat cheese frittelle with chocolate, pistachio and tangerine curd
Osteria’s house-made dolci bring things right back on track. Goat cheese fritters, studded with shards of dark chocolate and pistachios, are deep fried to order and delivered piping hot on a sheet of butcher’s paper. Whether popped straight up or dipped into deliciously tangy tangerine curd, they were addictively good.
The wine program at Osteria has continued to evolve over the course of the year as well. The list remains rooted primarily in modestly priced whites and reds, with an appropriate focus, in keeping with the northern Italian bent of the restaurant, on wines from the top of the Italian boot. Markups seem to have crept up slightly since this time last year. However, the quality of wine service has improved; all glassware is seasoned, recommendations are offered thoughtfully and some earlier issues with serving temperature seem to have been addressed. Befitting the restaurant’s casual mission, the list is compact and selected with an eye toward food-friendliness rather than impressiveness. Actually, if there’s a shortcoming to the list, it is its rather limited and narrow offering of higher-end bottles.
Brda Ribolla, Movia 2005
I’ve been trying to delve a little deeper into northeastern Italian whites as of late, so when I saw Movia’s Ribolla Gialla on the list I jumped at it (in spite of the fact that it’s actually from Slovenia). Movia farms biodynamically, producing fruit of great concentration. In this case, winemaker Aleš Kristančič opts for new oak barrel fermentation. The concentration and firm, medium-acidity of the wine stood up to the oak treatment, showing the barrel influence aromatically and texturally yet not being weighted down by its presence. Its honeyed opening, mango and tangerine driven mid-palate and mineral finish made it a solid if slightly weighty pairing to most of our antipasti and primi.
Südtirol/Alto Adige Lagrein “Castel Turmhof,” Tiefenbrunner 2006
With secondi at the table ranging from game to fish and from poultry to vegetarian options, we needed a versatile red. We also wanted something interesting. After a little consultation with the sommelier on duty, we narrowed his recommendations down to Tiefenbrunner’s Lagrein, which he assured us was not as big and brash as Lagrein can often be. It certainly screamed deep purple, Lagrein’s typical shade, when poured. But our wine steward was right; it was medium-bodied and relatively food-friendly, with spicy, red berry fruit, gentle tannins and just enough acid to give it lift. A suggestion of rot and slightly baked fruit at the wine’s core kept it from being more exciting.
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Without question, Osteria is making strong statements through the quality of its food, the style of its service and the ambience of its quarters. Strong statements – whether expressed in a person’s personality, through art or even in restaurants – tend to elicit strongly opinionated responses. Witness this anonymous letter to the editor that appears in the current issue of Philadelphia Magazine:
"In regards to “The Philly Mag 50” [February], what is the city’s infatuation with Osteria? How can my two favorite sources of dining establishments – Philly Mag and Craig LaBan – choose that place as the best restaurant in Philadelphia? I guess there’s nothing else to compare it to. Doesn’t anyone ever eat in Italian restaurants in New York?"
- Name withheld
(From “Mailbox,” Philadelphia Magazine, Vol. 99, No. 4, April 2008.)
Quality of the food aside, the writer’s comments about both New York and the lack of a peer group for Osteria bring up good points. In a city flooded with a wealth of casual Italian BYOBs and a handful of corporate, upscale Italian wannabes, Osteria stands out for its sparkling, almost clubby ambiance, its warm, casual aura and its mostly excellent food – more New York than Philly in impact. I think that easy upscale sense has been a strong contributor to the success of Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin’s joint venture, which works as a local hotspot and as a destination restaurant. However, Osteria does struggle with a bit of a personality conflict. Both high prices and high concept design seem a bit at odds with the very implication of the name “Osteria,” essentially a tavern, a casual meeting place oriented around friends, wine and simple food.
Perhaps it’s that very conflict that has gained Osteria so much notoriety. With just a few tweaks to its main dishes, Osteria should be able to comfortably live in the role – that it's already practicing – as one of the brightest stars in Philadelphia’s burgeoning dining scene.
640 North Broad Street (at Wallace)
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Other visits to Osteria: