Monday, April 20, 2009

Easteria III: The Return to Osteria

It’s become a tradition, accidental in origin but now quite intentional. For the third year running, my wife and I have dined at Osteria on Easter Sunday. (A good friend has dubbed it “Easteria.”) Neither of us celebrates the holiday but the large percentage of the population that does – and does so at home – makes it an easy day on which to nab a table at a spot that’s usually one of the tougher reservations in town. The last couple of years we’ve even taken friends along. Who knows, maybe the tradition will be catching.

Quite a while back now, I named Osteria as my pick for top new Philly restaurant of 2007. Two years on, they’re doing an admirable job of maintaining their early high standards. This Easter’s meal may not have been the best I’ve had there – the pizza lombarda wasn’t quite up to its usual snuff and Lady Mac wasn’t 100% enthused about her yellowtail crudo – but things still hit a very high overall level.

The marinated vegetable antipasti platter (photo at upper left), built for sharing, was one of the highlights of our meal. Beyond that, I was the only one to jump whole hog into the antipasto, primo, secondo pathway. Pictured clockwise from upper right: manila clams with san marzano tomatoes, green garlic and ciabatta; gemelli with sweetbreads, asparagus and parmiggiano; and veal breast “al latte” with carnaroli rice crema, roasted cipolline and sage.

All three of my course selections were on point. The clams tender and zesty, the breast of veal rich and rib sticking though still finessed, just as expected. The dish I really loved, though, was the gemelli with sweetbreads. I dug the way it took Osteria’s usual approach – elevate the everyday through top quality ingredients and thoughtful, creative preparation – and turned it on its head. Sweetbreads, which I expect most people think of as an ingredient usually reserved for haute cuisine, were brought down to earth via placement in a rustic, peasant style pasta dish, where tripe might have been a more traditional (if unexpected here in the US) condiment.

What to drink with all of that? I started with a glass of Verdicchio. As for something for everyone to share, most of the bottles on the relatively modest list that I’d really like to drink – like Movia’s Veliko Bianco or Paitin Barbaresco – are priced out of my reach, especially in these economically trying times. While I agree with the oft voiced criticism that wine pricing is on the high side at Osteria, I don’t believe their average markup is unfair (not that I wouldn’t like it to be lower). The level of service is high. The table is set with good quality stemware. Wine glasses are seasoned prior to first pour. But with the markup multiplier in PA starting from a full retail base rather than from wholesale as in free market states, the budget-conscious diner starts out at a disadvantage.

In that context, this wasn’t the first occasion on which I’ve appreciated the work that sommelier Bill McKinley does on the floor at Osteria. Though he’s not working with the deepest or most diverse list, he does a more than admirable job of understanding customers’ wishes and of recommending solid, good value bottles. The 2005 Sicilia IGT Nero d’Avola “Lamùri” from Tasca d’Almerita (Tenuta Regaliali) surpassed my expectations for a relatively large production Southern Italian wine – well balanced, surprisingly lively and more than companionable at the table.

We first met our dining companions, Mandy and Liz, at the beach last autumn. One of those weird coincidences where, 100 or more miles from home, you end up running into people who live in your own neighborhood. In this case, they also happen to share our passion for good food and wine.

Will we make it Easteria IV next year? I’m not generally one for planning that far in advance but, three years in a row having all been charms, I’d certainly say there’s a damn good chance.

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

A little more reading material from the MFWT archives:

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Another of my favorite Easter-time traditions? Paris-Roubaix. Live airing of this year’s edition overlapped with our dinner reservations. It took the better part of a week before I could finally catch up with the coverage (almost as long as it took me to write-up dinner…). Here’s footage of the deciding moments of the race. As so often in The Hell of the North, the winner was determined as much by the luck of the cobbles as by the strength of his legs. The video quality isn’t the greatest and the commentary isn’t in English but I think you’ll get the idea.


Anonymous said...

Ditto to everything you said. I'm still dreaming of your gemelli with sweetbreads, and Liz's pasta with lamb ragu. I loved that the chef didn't try to do too much with these dishes. They were grand in their subtlety.

Osteria may end up being our tradition too. Thanks for including us.


Samantha Dugan said...

That antipasti looks outstanding...little Prosecco and that and I would be set.

David McDuff said...

We were glad you and Liz could join us. And I'm glad you liked the experience so much.

Sounds about right. The marinated veggie antipasti platter is one of the simplest yet most flavorful things going. Every one is prepared differently yet none of them are fussy. An accompanying glass (or two) of Prosecco would definitely hit the spot.

One of the things I like about Osteria is that you could easily make a meal of a pizza or a little antipasti, or even just stop in at the bar for a snack and a glass of wine. My "problem" is that I don't make it in as often as I might ideally like to, so I almost always find myself tempted into the whole multi-course extravaganza.

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