It isn’t often a restaurant divides the world at my table so neatly. But at Alla Spina, the Vetri crew’s new Italian gastropub off North Broad Street, my meals revealed two continents drifting farther apart with every little plate.
On the one side of me were those few who gazed around at the boisterous graffiti-sprayed space politely nibbling — and yes, even enjoying — their house-made mortadella hot dogs. But they were secretly wishing to be transported one block north to the familiar rustic warmth, fine wines, and sublime pastas of Osteria.
On the other side, the thirsty boys were shifting into Ferrari-speed beer geek-mode as one rare and exotic Italian brew after the other arrived bearing aromas of a Tuscan spring field of piney myrrh, bitter chinotto bark, Calabrian chiles, or the oaky tang of barbera wine barrels. My mild-mannered German professor friend suddenly morphed into Hannibal Lecter at the sight of a pig’s head glazed in a deep, dark shine of caramelized beer: "C’mon guys! The Bavarians would be appalled to see us not eat this part!" he said, holding up some precious morsel he’d just foraged from deep within the platter.
How you take Alla Spina pretty much depends upon which of these groups you belong to. It is absolutely one of those "not for everyone," places, more than any restaurant from Marc Vetri, Jeff Benjamin, and Jeff Michaud to date. And there are a few lingering flaws, from the weak handful of baked pasta dishes (save for one: an exceptional green lasagna Bolognese) to the corny bell that rings à la T.G.I. Friday’s every time someone buys the kitchen a six-pack. And yet, perhaps because of its otherwise bold and youthful edginess, from the industrial spirit of the space — a revamped Subaru service bay with fold-up glass garage doors — to the extraordinary drink program and serious whole animal cookery, Alla Spina is also an essential new restaurant that promises to push our dining scene forward, one pig part at a time.
"Oh, that looks good!" says one random woman who paused by our table. "My friends and I are ‘snout-to-tail’ eaters."
That’s a good thing, because Alla Spina has tails and snouts, and everything in between, from slow-braised ribs tucked beneath a puff pastry lid of the pig pot pie to a creamy whip of rillettes with house-baked rye toasts and green onion relish. There are extraordinarily silky slices of house-cooked ham streaked with lemony fava beans and pecorino, as well as peppery coil of fresh luganega sausage with whole-grain mustard and charred scallions. Those pigtails, meanwhile, glazed on the bone in fennel agrodolce, are like crispy riblets with a surprising amount of tender meat.
To be sure, there is plenty on this sprawling menu of more or less Italian-inspired small-plates that the more timid, or at least, the pork-averse might enjoy. There are dangerously good house-made pretzel balls with spicy beer cheese, a gorgeous seared trout over greens and what may be one of the best new fried chickens in the city, glistening with sweet-tart maple agrodolce. There have even been a few worthwhile fresh vegetables added, belatedly: a raw tuft of tender Tuscan kale hiding the pop of fresh pink peppercorns in its crannies; oyster mushrooms seared on the plancha; and shaved raw veggies over a thin, but still flavorful, bagna cauda.
But these dishes, which certainly have equals elsewhere in the city, hardly reflect the true spirit of this adventurous kitchen. Led by former Osteria sous-chef Damon Menapace, 26, Alla Spina is more in its element batter-frying snails with a side of garlicky tartar dip, curing lamb shoulder into rosemary- and clove-scented speck, or tucking delicate mortadella hot dog links studded with pistachio into a house-baked bun with spicy pickles and cabbage relish. Oysters come juicy and hot, baked beneath a thin Parmesan crust. Just slightly warmed rib eye carpaccio comes beneath a hale of shaved Parmesan and pickled pioppini mushrooms. "Schisola" polenta dumplings ooze with molten Taleggio cheese. And though my order could have been better crisped, the kitchen’s 50-cent "duck wings," cooked confit-style before they’re fried and tossed with buttered hot sauce, are more a smart stroke of gastropub goodness than a clichéd bar food genre. For that matter, if there is a better upscaled hoagie anywhere than the house-baked roll Alla Spina fills with a breaded Milanese of slow-braised veal breast and bacon mayonnaise, I haven’t found it.
I do wish more attention was paid to the pastas than the bland ricotta-stuffed mac-n-cheese, or the stuffed crepe, which was tasty enough, but hardly a reason to come. The de-emphasis on pasta is deliberate, as this menu is clearly only loosely inspired by Italian flavors the Vetri crew came across on their Rome research trip for Amis. It is just as much influenced, however, by the two-fisted whole hog decadence of Montreal gastro-funhouses like Au Pied de Cochon and Joe Beef. A platter of tallow-crisped frites for the "poutine" smothered in rich guinea hen Bolognese and mozzarella curds makes that clear.
Perhaps the best reason to visit Alla Spina, though, may be the bar itself, a testament to Steve Wildy’s ascent into elite company among Philly’s best beverage directors, from the inventive beer cocktails, Negronis, and soon-to-come local wines on draft, to the buzzing bar itself. The lively horseshoe counter rings a shining copper tube sprouting 20 taps that flow with one of the city’s most uniquely focused and best-curated beer collections, highlighted by some of the rare Italian brews that have found one of their premier American showcases at Alla Spina. There are Danish, German, Belgian ,and American craft gems, too, but it is the Italian roster, even deeper in the bottle list (with lots of cellared reserve selections) that should thrill any beer nerd with a serious budget.
They are expensive. And so is a meal here, built on small plates that add up quick, and big splurges, like the $75 pig head for four, which had my German professor incessantly complaining ("outrageous!") in between mouthfuls and moans of pleasure. But the quality and serious preparation back it up.
Hold a small stemmed glass of deep amber Baladin Xyauyu to the light, a $15 pour of the strange but wonderful oxidized barley wine from 2004 that tastes like a rich Madeira — nutty, chocolaty, and malty with a lingering acidity. And then plunge your spoon deep into the whipped-cream pouf that hides layers of rum-soaked cake, Nutella puff pastry, and chocolate pudding that is Alla Spina’s Zuppa Inglese. It’s a magical pairing, isn’t it? It’s one that, perhaps with a little practice, could end up uniting the two worlds at my table once again.