Hard as I try, I cannot seem to figure out what wonderful section of the Mediterranean Barbuzzo’s “pig popcorn” takes its inspiration from. Then again, I’m not sure it really matters—the Jenga-like tangle of soaked, boiled, scraped, smoked and 14-hour-dehydrated pig skin is so perfectly addictive that questions of regional authenticity vanish with the first snap of Styrofoam-light skin. Just remember the general pig-centricity of the Mediterranean basin, stop thinking and blissfully crunch away.
The dish is ingeniously cut with bright apple-cider and malt vinegar powders and the slow, sensual burn of espelette chile. The more vegetal heat given off by the side of horseradish aioli—the ultimate ranch-style dressing at heart—is a nice touch, but not wholly necessary: The cumin- and pecorino-dusted “popcorn” is great on its own.
So while Barbuzzo’s menu is inspired by Mediterranean countries—specifically Italy, Portugal, Spain and France, with a focus on the boot—Midtown Village stalwarts Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran aren’t content to slavishly follow standards. Rather, they’ve added their own twist to the Mediterranean’s classics, even if their tweaks are occasionally subtle.
Olives, for example, are as quintessentially Mediterranean a snack as you’ll find. They also have the potential to be painfully boring. Olives, oil, herbs, rough-hewn earthenware vessel: Seen it. Here, however, the nice assortment of gaetas, picholines, arbequinas and cerignolas is perked up by back-of-throat-tingling Portuguese piri piri chile, the perfume of orange zest and garlic, the crunch of porcelain-toned Marcona almonds and a crown of fried rosemary sprigs. It’s both exciting and comforting: uncommon bedfellows.
Impossibly moist short rib and pork shoulder meatballs are given an exotic steroid treatment with coriander, fennel and the genius addition of minced cornichons (that’d be French for gherkin). They’re also stuffed with oozy orbs of caciocavallo cheese whose nut notes play off the sweetness of the tomato sauce like an old-school, late-night talk show straight man, providing the base for the flashier parts to play with. When’s the last time the cheese filling in a preparation played backup to anything?
Neon orange Calabrian chile oil and wild Sicilian oregano arrive as useful condiments for most of Barbuzzo’s excellent pizzas. Sliced fresh figs, gorgonzola dolce, walnuts, arugula, prosciutto and saba make for a notably sweet “fici” pie—the chile oil handily wrangles it back to a more savory tone. Uovo, with its bittersweet brussels-sprout leaves, three-cheese sauce (fior di latte, caciocavallo and parmesan), house-crafted guanciale, egg and truffle oil, needs no help beyond a glass of Barbera and perhaps a cigarette afterward. The crusts are subtly yeasty with thin snappy exteriors, chewy insides, and inconsistently blackened bubbly bits that add a sense of rustic whimsy.
Fideua, essentially a less familiar take on paella with short vermicelli instead of rice, can now take its place next to Adsum’s foie gras poutine as the best high-brow drunk food in town. It’s stuffed with tender calamari bands, sea-tasting shrimp, mussels musky with saffron, and smoky, paprika-scented chorico. Those noodles, heady with the combined scents of the seafood peeking up throughout, as well as the intensely flavored broth in which they’re cooked, is impossible to stop forking.
Brussels sprouts roasted in a cast-iron dish with pancetta, blanketed with a layer of shredded caciocavallo cheese, heralded the arrival of the season with a lustiness these cooler weather favorites typically lack.
Barbuzzo’s few missteps are generally the result not of execution but of unnecessary complication. Strozzapretti, for all its original, deeply developed flavors (perfectly wilted wild arugula, cloud-light whipped ricotta, the almost North African exoticism of preserved lemon-walnut pesto, hen of the woods mushrooms roasted off in the wood-fired oven), struggled under the weight of that broadly expressive range of flavors. Great soloists don’t always make for the best bandmates.
And while the dishes come out as they’re ready, a bit more choreography would help to build a more thoughtful progression. It took a few bites of meatball to overcome the residual sweetness of the fici pizza that preceded. And fideua would have shown even better than it already did had it come before the meatballs.
But these are quibbles, and Barbuzzo, for my money, is the best restaurant Turney and Safran have opened yet. Even desserts are humming along, from the mason jar of salted caramel with butterscotch pudding and chocolate crumbles to the tasting of chocolates, the four nibbles arriving on a paper map of the Mediterranean, resting atop their country of origin. The xocoa, with its Twix-like snap and dusting of espelette chile powder, is amazing.
Cocktails are subtle and in keeping with the menu—the Little Italian Redhead, with its hit of Aperol balanced out with lemonade, may single-handedly turn more Philadelphians on to Italian aperitivi. The wine list is smart, food-friendly and well-chosen; beers straddle the map from hot-afternoon Portuguese Sagres lager to chocolate-pairable Smuttynose Robust Porter, and service is very well-informed.
No matter where Barbuzzo’s inspiration is drawn from, Safran and Turney seem to have found a recipe for success. Again. ■
110 S. 13th St.
Cuisine: Creatively crafted and Mediterranean-inspired.
Hours: Daily, 5pm-midnight.
Atmosphere: Crowded and convivial.
Service: Enthusiastic, well-versed in the menu, and willing to help.
Food: Something for everyone, with explosive flavors.