Vetri Dish

Osteria's Lombarda pizza makes hangovers a joy.

By Kirsten Henri
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 16, 2007

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On your Marc: Vetri helps decorate Osteria's handsome interior.

Osteria
640 N. Broad St. 215.763.0920. www.osteriaphilly.com
Cuisine: Italian.
Hours: Mon.-Wed., Sat., 5-11pm; Thurs.-Fri., 11:30am-1:15pm and 5-11pm; Sun., 5-10pm.
Prices: $10-$29.
Sound advice: Big space eats big noise.
Atmosphere: Industrial rustic.
Service: Strangely off.
Food: Perfectly on.

I've never wished I had a hangover before, but sinking my teeth into the Lombarda pizza at Osteria--the new restaurant from Vetri owners Jeff Benjamin and chef Marc Vetri--changed all that.

Was there ever a more perfect hangover cure than this miraculous pie? You can keep your English, Irish and Scottish breakfasts. I turn my back on both the Hungry Lady and Hungry Man specials. Raw eggs, Worcestershire and Bloody Marys all pale in comparison to the glory of this: a blistering crust, impossibly thin yet still substantial; a luscious, barely quivering baked egg; and crumbles of cotechino sausage fragrant with clove layered over a bed of mild mozzarella and tangy bitto (an Italian cheese from Lombardy).

This pizza was born to eradicate all traces of a hangover, to stamp out the queasiness and the bleariness, to block the pounding headache, to restore and fortify the body that's been socked by a night of heavy imbibing. The world needs more pizzas like this. Or less drinking.

Either way, it's not to be missed, which can be said for pretty much everything on the menu at Osteria. The food is so good it makes up for the uneven service. Pizzas, pastas and earthy, rustic dishes like rabbit casalinga and chicken alla griglia are so wonderful you feel a little bit at their mercy. You find yourself helplessly handing over $18 for a dainty pizza, uncontrollably shoveling another mouthful of fusilli into your already overstuffed gullet and ordering polenta for dessert and loving it.

It's an interesting space, with an industrial, lofty subtext (exposed ductwork, high ceilings, big windows) that's been softened with a moderate application of Tuscanish charm. It's an urban take on rustic, and it works.

But what sort of restaurant is Osteria, exactly? Is it a casual restaurant that serves $36 bottles of wine, or a swanky restaurant where that $36 bottle of wine is opened and poured with the same pomp and circumstance as at upscale places? Or is it a careless restaurant, where you're left to pour that wine for yourself throughout the evening? Is it a turn-and-burn-type restaurant where the host offers you a choice of waters just after seating you, then disappears while both the water and a waiter fail to materialize for the next 10 minutes? A deep-pockets restaurant where the specials are recited without a price attached? I experienced all of these events, and I still don't know the answer. All I know is the bumpiness of the service sits uncomfortably next to the sublime smoothness of the food.

Ah, the food. Who would've thought a simple bowl of fusilli tossed with fresh fava beans, coated in creamy pecorino and scattered with brilliant fresh mint would be so utterly addictive? How to explain how two potentially clashing flavors--stinky gorgonzola and bitter radicchio--make beautiful music over rigatoni? How could a dish as simple as a pizza with tomato, oregano, baked eggplant and stracciatella cheese be elevated to something so superior to its individual parts?

As someone confronted with multiple renditions of octopus on a weekly basis, I can honestly say I can't imagine how anyone could top Osteria's wood-grilled version. Plump, juicy, tender--all the things that good little octopuses aspire to be--this octopus has it all plus a good-looking char, a bright dose of tart cured lemon and soft potatoes to boot. Brave souls will find their fortitude rewarded if they order the snails--the dainty curls soaked in butter, flavored with smoky pancetta and served with a toasted polenta cake and pretty English peas.

Chicken on a menu is usually considered boring--safety for suckers. But Osteria's chicken alla griglia (grilled) is stellar--its skin crisp and crunchy, the meat soft and savory, a pointy pile of warm, bitter dandelions made palatable with a generous coating of fat from pancetta. Even the potatoes it's served with are somehow more potato-y and bright than other potatoes. Rabbit casalinga(housewife-style) is an unreal arrangement of tender rabbit meat coated in brown butter, pancetta and sage and served over a pile of soothing soft polenta. If you ever meet a housewife who can cook like this, you should marry her. Or him.

There was only one dish that fell flat over two visits: a disarmingly sharp tricolor salad with anchovies, so unbalanced and overwhelmingly bitter we nicknamed it "the angry salad." To paraphrase the Islamic idea of perfection: Only God is perfect.

Desserts won't let you down either, from the pudding-like cup of sweet polenta topped with an airy puff of gianduia chocolate to a chocolate cake that spills intense dark chocolate ooze onto pistachio gelato. A little chick pea torta is moist, springy and a perfect foil to a tart lemon crema.

I'm curious to see what sort of restaurant Osteria turns out to be once it gets into its groove.

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