The Philly Mag 50: Restaurants 1 to 20

1. Osteria
1. Osteria
The lightly charred Lombarda pizza, studded with nutmeg-y cotechino sausage and topped with a soft-cooked egg. A tangle of tender candele noodles, a hard-to-find and harder-to-make wide tube-shaped pasta, just coated with a wild boar bolognese. A ramekin of artichoke leaves, roasted both bitter and sweet. A massive, meaty rib eye for two, served over white beans and grilled scallions. The petite polenta budino, an unexpected and delicious dessert made from the Italian cornmeal staple, crowned with chocolate-hazelnut cream. All that, plus a quartino of food-friendly vino, and we’re still going to tell you that the food — oh, that food — is only a small part of the reason Osteria is the best restaurant in Philadelphia.

There’s never been a moment’s doubt that Philadelphia favorite Marc Vetri and his 30-year-old protégé Jeff Michaud can cook, but even in their talented hands, the intense flavors of these classic Italian home-style dishes wouldn’t taste as good in your kitchen. A restaurant isn’t just about eating; it’s about the complete experience, even — maybe especially — when you can’t think about anything but the next bite.

Osteria tastes better because the painstakingly shaped and carefully sauced pastas are served in quirky, colorful handmade ceramic bowls, and the Italian wines are poured into dramatically oversize stemware. It tastes better because the waiters are so knowledgeable, they sound as if they could moonlight as the chef, and so attentive that a rave about those roasted artichokes will bring a sample, compliments of the kitchen. It tastes better, even, because of the elaborate and expensive ventilation system that’s the envy of many chefs in town. You’ll never notice the — yawn — high-end exhaust fans, except for this: They allow for the 700-degree brick oven that turns out those — yum — crisp-crusted pizzas.

Osteria is the best restaurant in Philadelphia because of its attention to every element. It’s not trying to be Vetri, with the exclusivity of an always-full reservation book. (In fact, Osteria just added more than 50 seats.) Instead, it’s proof that a great, detail-oriented restaurant can be casual and convivial. Vetri, Michaud and front-of-the-house partner Jeff Benjamin weren’t interested in cloning the classic Italian osteria. They only aimed at capturing its essence — a conscious choice ensuring that the North Broad Street space, city-chic with its industry-meets-art decor, doesn’t veer into theme-park territory.

They’ve left us diners with only one decision, but it’s a big one: Should we order the Lombarda pizza — again — or sample the equally enticing double-crusted pie, stuffed with salty house-cured ham and hearty spinach? Or both?

Pictured: Spit-roasted baby pig with roasted potatoes and toasted fennel salad

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