As a visitor to the City of Brotherly Love I guess I didn’t realize just how far the city itself spanned – as it turns out the walk from Carman’s Country Kitchen to the Art Museum is nearly three and a quarter miles. Happy for the morning breeze and an Ipod loaded with Interpol the walk went quickly and the museum itself (plus the Late Renoir exhibit) was exemplary…even if I didn’t run the steps Rocky-style like many other visitors. Full on culture and low on fuel I would soon turn east and march yet another mile to my lunch destination – the second Vetri establishment on my tour, Osteria.
Helmed by Jeff Michaud, a Beard Award winner who actually began his cooking career as a youngster at a pizzeria, Osteria has gathered quite a following since its opening despite being rather far from the rest of the city’s fine dining. With extensive training first at Vetri and then in Michelin Starred restaurants across Italy and especially fond of rich, bold, and rustic foods it was actually as much Jeff’s menu as Marc Vetri’s that I had enjoyed at Amis – that fact alone had me excited for my visit.
Making my way into the rustic stylized interior of Osteria I have to say it is a beautiful space. Highly polished woods, walls made of broken down boxes of wine, a vintage salumi slicer, and simplified table settings with rustic seating all lent to the feel of something vintage yet refined. Greeted by the hostess I was led to a nice table near the bar and shortly thereafter was greeted by my server, a pleasant and unobtrusive sort of fellow who filled my water and presented me with the menu.
In my traditional fashion of wanting to taste as many different dishes as possible while conserving stomach room I inquired about half orders I was assured that the pastas could be accommodated but told steadfast that half and half pizzas were generally not done. Having spoke to Shane James, service manager, via E-mail I found this strange as I was assured this was common practice and although I did not want to make a big deal of it I must note I had to insist on speaking to Mr. James when my server again refused. A friendly man both via e-mail and at the restaurant Mr. James happened to be in house and after a quick discussion I was assured that a half and half pizza could indeed be done - just not the Lombarda given the manner in which it bakes as compared to the other pizzas (due to the egg.) Misunderstanding resolved I was now presented with the arduous activity of deciding how to narrow my selection from twenty different things to a more reasonable amount.
While weighing the pros and cons of the myriad fantastic sounding pizzas and pastas my water was refilled and I was presented with a bucolic basket made of a hollowed log. Inside the basket would be warm slices of sea salted focaccia and semolina white bread and alongside an oil can of mildly sweet and glossy olive oil. Not wanting to fill up on bread I would invariably fail in the task – while the semolina white was good, the focaccia was superb; moist, oily, and salty with a great crumb.
Orders placed I would sit back and wait while reading a few e-mails via free Wi-Fi in the connecting building. Seeing my neighboring tables enthralled in their pizzas (a family of 3 on one side and a business meeting of 4 on the other) I grew more excited by the minute. With less than 15 minutes passed my pastas would arrive first. Presented plainly yet elegantly, my first taste would be that of Corn Tortelli with Ricotta Salata. A half portion consisting of six small packets of luscious corn and cream the pasta was more tortellini that tortelli (traditionally round rings) but honestly I did not really care – paired with a simple sauce of clarified butter and shaved pecorino the dish tasted like the creamy equivalent of fresh buttered corn off the grill – a perfect summer dish for the warm weather outside as each pocket burst with dazzling flavor.
My second pasta, served simultaneously with the tortelli, would be the Chicken liver rigatoni with Cipolline onions and sage. This time appropriately titled and served in a rustic bowl the handmade rigatoni was ideally prepared with just a bit of spring in it. Utilizing ground chicken liver sweetened by melted Cipollinie onions and heavy hints of sage the sauce adhered beautifully to the pasta while grated parmesan added the slightest bit of bite. At first somewhat grainy in mouth feel the sautéed liver actually melted on the tongue with minimal mastication and the entirety of the dish was decidedly rustic, but at the same time restrained despite using such heavy hitting ingredients.
With my pasta plates mopped clean using a piece of focaccia they were cleared and my server would stop by to check in and chat – moments later he would return with a refill of my water and seconds later with what was expected to be the star of the afternoon, one of Osteria’s “classic” style pizzas. Featuring a Romanesque thin and crispy crust that was lightly charred and slightly aerated despite its thinness I was impressed by the flavor the wood burning oven imbued. Beginning with the left half as it looked the most interesting I was greeted with a rush of heat, flavor, smoke, and brine as I bit into Polpo. Utilizing wood grilled octopus atop the wood grilled crust and pairing it with sweet tomatoes, coarse red chili flakes, and smoked mozzarella the entire dish had the essence of a hearty cioppino but in the form of a Pizza. Not subtle in the least each flavor fought for the palate’s attention yet none managed to overwhelm the others – a dazzling pie to say the least and I especially loved the presentation of whole tentacles both visually and orally.
The second half of the pizza was one suggested by Shane – he said it was the best pizza in the city. Entitled Pannocchia and featuring blistered corn, grilled scallions, bufala mozzarella and black truffles it would honestly be hard to say whether this or Tacconelli’s white was the best Pizza in the city – in reality they’re both amongst the top 5 I’ve had anywhere. Underlied by the faintly woody charred crust, the flavor of the corn and scallions were perfectly paired while creamy pools of mozzarella accented with olive oil and the aroma of black truffles rose to the palate.
Finishing my pie the server stopped by to ask if I might want to see the dessert menu. Having watched table after the table order gelato I was told that it was the house specialty but having read otherwise I did indeed request the menu – as expected, the item I’d heard a trusted fellow gourmand refer to as the most “shockingly good” dessert he’d ever had was there – I ordered it along with a cup of coffee. Brought without hesitation and refilled thrice the bold flavors of Colombe proved a wonderful brew once again – enough that I’d order it again at Vetri and take 3lbs home from their Rittenhouse store the next day. Aside from the house coffee at Daniel I can’t think of a better coffee to compliment chocolate desserts.
Arriving with my first refill of coffee was my highly touted and unassuming dessert – the Polenta budino with GianduJa mousse and candied hazelnuts. Different from my previous budino experiences this version was nonetheless an absolute masterpiece. Slightly gritty in texture and topped with the characteristic flavors of sweet chocolate and hazelnut in the form of an airy mousse the delicate pudding was sweet, salty, textural, and ethereal in mouth feel. Adding a spoonful of candied Hazelnuts for added crunch and texture completed the picture and formed what is undoubtedly a member of the top 10 things I’ve eaten in 2010 and on par with Vetri’s Gnocchi as my fondest Philadelphia food memory. As an added bonus I will note that after my meal I e-mailed Shane James a thank you and he sent me a copy of the recipe.
When the meal was all said and done it turned out that Osteria’s Credit card machine was down which forced them to run each card by hand (and led to jokes about being BYO and Cash only given the current trend.) A stellar meal from start to finish aside from a small miscommunication about the half-pizza I can only say that Osteria is a formidable contender in my mind for best food memories of the year and that the budino will definitely be making an appearance at a future family get together. With Amis and Osteria now in the books the only logical thing to do would be to complete the troika that night at the flagship.