Something like this was bound to happen. If Stephen Starr didn’t do it, another showman would. It could only be a matter of time before somebody marked our pig-crazy moment with a hallucinatory idol befitting a Pink Floyd concert.
But go figure that Marc Vetri would be the one to hoist a Pop Art piglet—painted like a pink-and-periwinkle sunset and decked out with aquamarine leg warmers—over a beer bar perfumed by fryer oil. Christened Alex, after Jessica Beals’s shin-stockinged character in Flashdance, it’s a fitting mascot for Alla Spina, where dinner might start with deep-fried pig tails, continue with a whole pig’s head, and end with chocolate-covered bacon laid over soft-serve ice cream.
Yes, Philadelphia’s foremost interpreter of Italian cuisine has detoured into pub grub. Vetri and partners Jeff Michaud and Jeff Benjamin have remade the old Wilkie Subaru into a graffiti-tagged outpost of highbrow Italian microbrew, no-brow bar snacks, and everything in between. Alla Spina is dedicated to drinks on tap (including Negronis and wine), head-to-tail eating, and the proposition that as yet, Philadelphia is insufficiently punch-drunk on poutine.
More on that Canadian contribution to the obesity epidemic in a moment. First, let’s start with the pig parts. Alla Spina’s servers cruise the concrete floors in blue t-shirts with orange and black racing stripes, ferrying pork potpies and mortadella hot dogs like a Formula One pit crew commandeered by line cooks. Excepting the pig tails, which are like sweet-and-sour chicken wings whose meat-to-fat ratio has been inverted, it’s hard to go wrong. Cooked prosciutto was a warm, succulent partner for blanched favas. The potpie was a one-note pleasure, but its rich slosh of rib and jowl meat resonated like a Barry White bass line once you’d tapped through the flaky beret of puff pastry trapping its steam.
And the head—with its collapsed eyeballs and skeleton teeth, its fork-tender tongue ready to be yanked out after you’ve broken the caramelized seal where the neck flesh has fused with the roasting pan—the head is unforgettable. Brined for four days and braised for most of another, the one on my table had been basted with a beer agrodolce sauce whose sweet/sour essence was redoubled with kumquat jam. The skin was as sticky as taffy. The meat underneath slid off the skull in small, juicy morsels—most of it mild, but some flavored with an almost feral intensity. The interior cavity cupped a small brain. Gray matter is sometimes likened to mousse, but long cooking had dried this one somewhat, imparting a grainy aspect to its mucky mineral flavor. A modest proposal for the prion-averse: Go for the neck.
Chef Damon Menapace, formerly executive sous at Osteria, dishes out some green things with which to cut through all this fat. In early spring—when the pub raised its airplane-hangar doors in a warm embrace of Mount Vernon Street—there were basil-and-oregano-strewn zucchini drenched in olive oil, tiny red peppers stuffed with tonnato, and sprightly pickles of all kinds. Less finely wrought—or perhaps just a little lazy for its $10 (now $8) tag was a plate of shredded raw kale speckled with pink peppercorns and a few slices of provolone.
But no one’s going to Alla Spina for the roughage. Squint through one eye—just enough to glimpse a cone of beef-fat fries and the black-and-white swirl of a soft-serve twist—and you’ll find McDonald’s reflected more strongly than any trattoria.
Of course, the resemblance breaks down when the fries are topped with mozzarella curds and (way oversalted, alas) guinea-hen-leg bolognese, and real bittersweet chocolate and fior di latte are the components of that sundae.
Then there are the burgundy snails, sautéed in butter before being rolled in parsley and beer-battered—and now we’re in a whole different place, one where snails come out of the fryer as puffy and tender as though they’d dieted on helium. They were my favorite among Menapace’s mostly straightforward but well-executed pleasures.
A few parts of Alla Spina are a stretch. Some people will wonder whether poutine, fried chicken and mac-and-cheese haven’t been lionized enough already in this particular culinary moment. And while Vetri certainly isn’t the first guy to bend graffiti to bourgeois purposes, he might be the first to press it into the service of selling $40 bottles of beer.
But this is pub fare, after all, and there are cheaper thrills for those who expect pub prices—whether that means a $5 cocktail of Monk’s sour ale and chinotto, a $4 plate of sweet fried sunchokes, or a down-home $16 plate of crespelle. And depending on how you look at it, the beer list—flush with rarities like Montegioco’s Tibir (brewed with Timorasso grapes) and a Baladin saison flavored with myrrh—offers markups that would be best-in-class if applied to wine.
Philadelphia has long been a cultural conservator for classic Italian-American cuisine, with the emphasis put firmly on conservative. Alla Spina, though, plays looser, imagining that culinary fusion anew: how it looks in a time when bar counters are replacing white tablecloths, Fryolators are busier than pasta pots, and Mama’s red gravy has none of the cultural cachet of pig flesh served straight off the skull.