Where baristas get the art of the bean

Osteria's crew are inspired by owner Marc Vetri's coffee fetish. They learn to grind and tamp beans, and froth the milk just so.

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Baristas Juan Perez and Estrella Palillero prepare to serve orders of cappuccino and expresso they've just prepared on the three-armed, 1961-vintage, Faema E-61, the earliest espresso machine to incorporate an electric compressor to push the steam through the grind.

After the grilled octopus salad (with zest of cured lemon), and wild-boar bolognese over languorous tubes of pasta, after the white wine (a surprisingly crisp Sardinian white called Argiolas "Costamolino" Vermentino), and creamy polenta stirred over a wood fire and topped with a savory rabbit casalinga (in the style of the "housewife," or in this particular case, the northern Italian grandma of the young woman from Bergamo that chef Jeff Michaud met there and married), it is time at Osteria for the finale (served with hot, crackling flatbread stuffed with gooey Nutella) - the acid test of an after-dinner cappuccino.

Let us pause and reflect before it arrives. First, consider Osteria, a stylish, chocolatey-dark trattoria, the first of the Mohicans on a stretch of auto dealerships on North Broad Street to which, in conversation, the modifier "stylish" is not commonly applied.

It is a restaurant at a pivotal moment, a place that may well signal - as El Vez did at the corner of 13th and Sansom - that the dreary edge of Fairmount is ripe for reviving, for loft-apartments above, gelaterias below, ready to catch a puff, perhaps, of Northern Liberties in its limp and luffing sail.

This is the more-casual, affordable second act of Marc Vetri, chef-owner of the eponymous Vetri, the pricey northern Italian gem at 13th and Spruce, and his longtime front-of-the-house, Jeff Benjamin. Jeff Michaud, a Vetri alum, is running the kitchen.

There are good ways, of course, to keep prices down - simpler dishes, cheaper peasant ingredients (pastas and cornmeal mush), lower rents. And there are bad ways: One might be tempted to cut corners, skimp on the coffee; let one of those robotic espresso makers do the job.

This didn't fully occur to me until opening night when, at some point, I ended up sipping a gutsy cappuccino that struck me as extraordinarily, well, unlike Brand X.

By the time I decided to go back and ask Vetri about it - before I realized the depth of his coffee fetish - a curious cultural moment had transpired: Starbucks' chairman Howard Schultz had made a startlingly candid confession that by opening a 13,000 stores with automatic espresso machines and pre-ground beans in "cookie cutter" spaces, the brand hadn't been just watered down; it was tottering on the verge of generic "commoditization."

Well, well. Marc Vetri stands worshipfully before his chrome-plated baby - Osteria's three-armed, 1961-vintage, Faema E-61, the earliest espresso machine to incorporate an electric compressor to push the steam through the grind. It is a handsome objet, in the manner of a classic car, with all the pampering you might associate with one: You've got to keep adjusting the grind, opening the knobs with a respectful restraint, rubbing off the wands just so, polishing fingerprints off, stacking the shallow-beam cups to warm on the machine's hood without setting off a career-ending cup slide.

It signifies, yes, an earlier leap of technology. But it requires you to keep your hand in. Vetri swears he can hear - on another model at his original location - when milk is being oversteamed. Here, servers are trained to hold the pitcher of rising foam cupped in their hand: "When you can't hold it anymore, it's done."

They are instructed in tamping and how to bring forth a frothy crema head, and the proper grind for the Italian-roast Miscela D'Oro beans (a blend of silky arabica and inelegant robusto beans), and in pushing foam beyond mere airiness to a manly marshmallowy head.

Not every barista at Osteria nails it every time. But most of the time they do, and when they do it is rustic and memorable stuff (as mine is this evening), round and earthy and full of flavor, the antithesis of cookie-cutter - a welcome shot in the war on commoditization.


Osteria

640 N. Broad St. 215-763-0920

www.osteriaphilly.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.