THERE’S NO ACCOUNTING FOR BAD TASTE. At least, not on Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s stretch of 13th Street, where there’s simply none to account for among their seven distinct businesses. Their MoMA-style merch at Open House could accessorize a dozen Dwell photo shoots. At BYOs Lolita and Bindi, they’ve liberated Mexican and Indian cuisines from “ethnic food” bondage, melding pickled papaya and pani puris into the American mainstream the way brainy DJs drop Bhangra beats into dance mixes. There’s Verde for -flowers and “vegan leather” handbags, Marcie Blaine Chocolates for all your seasonal ganache needs, and Grocery for a gourmet spread that makes Whole Foods look like ShopRite. The moguls of Midtown have turned a block once known for peep-show dives and check-cashing joints into a Bobo’s paradise. And Barbuzzo, the couple’s new pan–Mediterranean restaurant, is the culmination of it all.
From the daily-specials chalkboard highlighting purple radish sprouts or Japanese turnips, to the wall niches packed with preserved Meyer lemons, to the house-cured meats that seem to be a city–mandated requirement for opening a restaurant in 2010, Barbuzzo is in lockstep with the zeitgeist. The plates are small. Local farmers are touted. Even the reclaimed woods have Mid-Atlantic pedigrees — floorboards milled from Maryland dock pilings, tabletops crafted from a Manayunk dam, refurbished church pews from West Philly’s old Church of the Transfiguration.
If there’s any doubt this place is the fullest expression of its proprietors’ High Casual aesthetic, take it from Chef Turney, who says, “We want to move in here.”
There’s hardly space for a sleeping bag in Barbuzzo’s taut 65-seat layout, so take a seat at the marble bar instead. It’s just sleek enough to keep the whitewashed-brick and gray-clapboard walls from feeling like a Pottery Barn catalog, and it’s as close to the kitchen action as you can get in this city without donning a hair net.
Start with the piggy popcorn. That would be pork skins boiled for four hours in aromatic broth, then scraped of excess fat, smoked and dehydrated — all as a prelude to the deep fryer, which puffs up some of the best rinds you’ll ever dip in horseradish aioli. Just go for it; there will be plenty of chances to balance the health ledger later.
One of the most winning things about the rustic cooking that prevails here is the superior treatment vegetables get. As fall rolled in, so did wood-roasted kabocha, dumpling and red-neck squashes, each as vividly flavored as the specks of preserved lemon and sage brown butter with which they were tossed. Sopressata and dried tomatoes accented the pungency of some outstanding sautéed kale. Not to knock the house-cured lomo, but how refreshing to be in a place where the daily vegetable board isn’t merely an also-ran to the charcuterie platter.
For the best of both worlds, though, order the uovo pizza. In autumn, this pie married brussels sprout leaves and guanciale beneath a Rorschach splotch of orange egg yolk — its runny richness amplifying an exultant fior di latte (stretched on the premises). Had the chewy crust been blistered just a little more, it might have been the best pizza I’ve ever had. It’ll have to settle for my best in Philly.