If there’s blame to be laid here, it lands squarely at the feet of Marc Vetri (and Chef de Cuisine Damon Menapace): Alla Spina turned me into a man.
These are not the pigtails of a youthful maiden skipping through a meadow (though my male friends swear pigtails are right up there with sundresses for summertime turn-ons). Rather, they are a rear end more delectable than J.Lo’s or Kim Kardashian’s: literally, the tail of a pig.
Menapace brines, then fries the bony little buggers, rendering the considerable fat succulent and the strands of meat both crisp and redolent with piggy goodness—think crunchy bacon and fatty pork belly, twisted together around a bone not unlike a chicken wing. Awash in fennel agrodolce and topped with the filmiest hint of fennel fronds, they are best eaten with your fingers, a lip-smacking treat that manages to be at once sweet, sour, salty and rich. It would be safe to call them the most crave-able plate I’ve encountered in the city this year.
Yes, Alla Spina made me a man—because ever since my first meal there, I have been lusting after pigtails with a hunger I can only describe as masculine.
The menu’s charms don’t end there, which is a good thing given the size and scope, ranging from $6 “sotto aceti” house-cured pickles to a $75 whole roasted pig’s head for four. Those pickles, though bright and pungent, are almost unnecessary; most plates are so balanced that there’s no need to add additional vinegary bite. They do serve nicely alongside the pig pot pie, a puff pastry-topped casserole of meaty nuggets and creamy gravy that benefits from the snap and crunch of vegetables (recently, ramps, pearl onions and bell peppers).
Beef fat fries evoke the subtlest whisper of a perfect burger, curious in a French fry but enough to keep my companion and me going back for more. Grilled zucchini is served cut in half length-wise, preserving the heft of the vegetable where most presentations render it limp. This one has no trouble standing up to the accompanying lemon olive oil and fresh sprigs of basil and oregano—it’s a satisfying small plate that defies what a vegetable can be as a bar snack.
Defying expectations is the name of the game at Alla Spina, where Vetri’s widely acclaimed hospitality gets a lowbrow make-under to match the cuisine. Table service can be stand-offish, and the menu’s bold claim that “all of our managers/servers/bartenders have passed or are studying for their cicerone certification” is more confusing than comforting. (They’re studying? So they ... failed the first time?) Still, the basics are on point—water glasses are full, napkins are folded and plates are cleared quickly and efficiently.
And it’s tough to quibble while nibbling on the superb prosciutto cotto, served with fresh fava beans and aromatic pesto alongside toasted bread that is firm but not tough, paired with any of the restaurant’s numerous draught and bottled-beer selections. Although the beer list trends toward unusual offerings, the bartenders are well-versed in their wares and quick to offer guidance—and gratis tastes—to help guide you to the right beverage. For me, it was Italy’s Baladin Isaac, an orange- and coriander-steeped wheat beer that was a perfect foil for the mackerel crudo, picking up the citrus of the Meyer lemon without overwhelming the delectably mild character of the perfectly cut fish, gleaming with olive oil and sea salt like shards of rose quartz.
The menu occasionally errs, usually for lack of seasoning. The bufala ricotta mac ’n’ cheese is creamy but lacks bite, and the Tuscan kale with shaved pecorino eats like iceberg, crunchy but ultimately bland, a feat for such a full-flavored green.
Still, with a seat at the bar, a cold beer in hand and a plate of those pig tails arriving fresh and hot from Menapace’s gleaming open kitchen, it’s difficult to imagine a more affable beer bar or Italian joint in a city that is virtually overrun with both. Thank you, Marc Vetri, for making a man out of me—and a destination out of North Broad Street.
1410 Mt. Vernon St. 215.600.0017. allaspinaphilly.com
Cuisine: Italian gastropub.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 5pm-1am; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-2am.
Price range: $5-$16.
Atmosphere: A stylized airline hanger, with floor-to-ceiling windows, custom graffiti accents, a pastel-sculpted pig wearing legwarmers and wall-to-wall seating that occupies every available inch of the space.
Food: Largely shareable, with Italian superstar Marc Vetri’s takes on beer-friendly bar snacks and pork-centric plates.
Service: Off-handed at times, but capable.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014