Osteria Review: Northern Exposure

We review Marc Vetri’s Osteria, which takes fine dining in a new direction — to North Broad. On one of the first Saturday nights that

On one of the first Saturday nights that Osteria was open for business, an arriving customer approached chef-owner Marc Vetri with an urgent question: Where do I park?

Vetri glanced out the front door. There were three vacant metered spaces directly in front of the restaurant, and several more across the street. Because it was after 6:30 p.m., the customer didn’t even need to feed the meter. But in this almost-abandoned neighborhood, he was reluctant to take the freebie.

About six blocks north of City Hall, a block from the Spring Garden stop on SEPTA’s Broad Street subway line, near the derelict Divine Lorraine Hotel (soon to be reborn as condos), the city’s best Italian chef and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, have opened an artisan pizzeria and wine bar on the ground floor of Lofts 640, a former garment factory converted to apartments that rent for up to $2,500 a month. Before anyone could gasp “Are you nuts?,” Osteria proved that if you build it, and cook as adroitly as Vetri and protg Jeffrey Michaud are doing in this improbable location, crowds will come, even if it means putting the Lexus on the street. The reward is a meal equal in quality to those served at Vetri’s tiny, exquisite Spruce Street restaurant, in a much less formal atmosphere and at a slightly lower price point.

Here is what brings so many people to North Broad: hand-crafted pastas like the delicate elongated tubes of candele tossed with rosemary-flecked wild boar bolognese; pillowy potato gnocchi filled with porchetta and mozzarella, richly gilded with brown butter; ultra-thin-crust pizzas crisped in a wood-burning oven; antipasto meats cured by Michaud, sliced as sheer as swatches of silk; house-baked focaccia, ciabatta and bread sticks; and braised dishes so meltingly tender that it’s hard to tell where the meat ends and the sauce begins.

The restaurant’s industrial-style track lighting and the forge-like wood-fired oven and grill that burn through a cord of wood every week look at home in a building that once housed more than 1,000 workers. Dark-stained knotty pine tables, made by a craftsman in Chadds Ford, are substantial as well as beautiful; the iPod shuffle is Italian soft rock that sounds like the Milano equivalent of WMMR. Oversize stemware coaxes the best possible nose from your Castello di Farnetella Lucilla (a Tuscan sangiovese-cabernet-merlot blend) or Librandi Gravello (a Calabrian cabernet-gaglioppo blend). It’s fun to eat at the bar, which affords a slightly elevated view of the dining room, and even better to sit at the kitchen counter, where Vetri often works the pizza station. The polished servers cope well even when the restaurant is full.

Inspiration comes from all of Italy, but most strongly from the area around Bergamo in the north-central Lombardy region, where both Vetri and Michaud worked while refining their cooking skills. Michaud, who won’t turn 30 until July, returned with a bride, and a deep appreciation of Italian grandmother cooking gained by watching his wife Claudia’s nonna cook her own home-raised rabbits every Sunday on the wood stove in her kitchen. The braised rabbit with pancetta and sage on Osteria’s menu closely follows her recipe. A massive rib-eye steak for two, served Florentine-style over white bean salad with grilled scallions, is more of a celebration dish, brought to the table to be admired after it finishes cooking, then returned to the kitchen to be sliced.

The baccala served on flatbreads, the bruschetta with cream-softened mortadella mousse, and the fritto misto trio (deep-fried mozzarella, tuna with chickpeas, and saffron rice with fresh peas) are nibbles worth considering if you’re just dropping in for a drink. Beef tripe baked with white beans and tomatoes is a more robust starter, extremely tender, with only a hint of funk. The seasonal antipasto plate is wonderful to pass around at the start of a group meal, and the tricolor salad, incorporating radicchio, baby romaine and endive in anchovy dressing, is substantial enough to stand in as an entre. Pork sausage boldly seasoned with cured lardo, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice is formed into plump patties and cooked over oak, then paired with a runny egg on the pizza lombarda, or with soft polenta and a sunny-side-up egg in an appetizer called ciareghi.

I’m not enthusiastic about the pizza topped with grilled octopus, which absorbs too much smoke for my taste, but I love the double-crust pizza filled with robiola, drizzled topside with white truffle oil. There’s also a formidable double-crust dessert pizza, filled with Nutella and dusted with powdered sugar.

Osteria has no pastry chef, because Italian chefs take pride in mastering a meal from start to finish. Michaud makes remarkable blood-orange gelato and pistachio sorbetto, but his most memorable meal-ender is sweet polenta enriched with milk and butter, sugar and eggs. Candied hazelnuts and chocolate-hazelnut whipped cream are the finishing touches.

I could eat here every night. Just don’t tell my car insurer.