Some dishes are just too stupid to try.
That’s an unoriginal observation in the era of the Pummple—a double-layer cake with a pie baked into each layer, in case you missed it on Rachael Ray. But it’s getting to be an epidemic, this business of food-blog bait masquerading as culinary creativity.
And Birra isn’t immune. Because while it’s one thing to top a pizza with bread-crumbed mac-and-cheese, fresh herbs and crème fraîche, Gordon Dinerman takes it a Barnum-style step further at his Italianesque gastropub with the Birra Bowl. Behold: a gimcrack novelty for our lard-ass age in which those toppings are not just spread on a pizza, but instead heaped into a bowl, fired beneath a flat tent of dough à la potpie, and then … wait for it … flipped upside down. The concoction arrives at your table like a sad mountain topped with an oily mass of congealing cheese.
1700 East Passyunk Avenue
Cuisine: Italianesque pub grub
Price: $7 to $19.
So give the Birra Bowl a pass. But don’t miss a chance to duck into this foodie-at-heart restaurant that operates with a combination of craft-brew street cred and red-sauce soul. From a seriously delicious scampi of head-on prawns raised on the best shrimp farm on the East Coast to a brisket sandwich whose pepperoncini jam makes it the finest use of a crispy baguette in ages, Birra strikes the center of almost every target a casual neighborhood spot could aim for—not excluding the local personality. Sporting all permutations of mid-century-mod threads and novelty facial hair currently in hipster vogue, the friendly and earnest staff hit Passyunk Avenue’s Portlandia vibe right on the bespectacled-nerd nose.
Birra’s normal pizzas, anchored by thin crusts with just the right amount of crackle, are terrific—from a caper-y puttanesca stoked with whole anchovy fillets to a pie strewn with exotic mushrooms and truffle shavings. Same goes for the cheeseburger pizza, another novelty act whose aged beef and homemade pickles turn a complete gimmick into pub-grub gold. Salads are large and lovely, built from flawless mesclun greens that nestle slender enoki mushrooms and fat royal trumpets, or a color-wheel dice of roasted vegetables. Use one to balance out a buttery trio of prosciutto-wrapped scallops.
By all measures except the titular bowl (I skipped the mac-and-cheese version, opting for one that entombed duck confit and arugula pesto in a flavor-killing glob of mozzarella), Birra has clicked on the savory side of things. The sweet side reached too far during my visits, with a tiramisu that more closely resembled cheesecake and a sticky-toffee chocolate cake hyperglycemic with brown sugar. So while you’re skipping the Birra Bowls, skip dessert, too. But still, don’t skip Birra.