Marc Vetri has heard the jokes about battling for pizza dollars with Sbarro, his neighbor at the Moorestown Mall. He's heard the wisecracks about needing to accessorize with blinking pagers - and a Cheesecake Factory line's worth of waiting diners - if his new Osteria is to amount to anything in chain-crazy South Jersey.
But Vetri, as much a master contrarian as he is a maestro of ethereal "Francobolli" ravioli and spit-roasted suckling pig, is ready to prove his doubters wrong. Again.
"When we opened up the first Osteria on North Broad Street, there was not one of my friends, not one, who thought it was a good idea," he said.
Seven years later, Osteria remains a perennial 3-bell powerhouse, and one of the best all-purpose restaurants in Philly. After a couple of stellar meals at its new Moorestown twin, it was clear that Osteria Take 2 is for real, from my first bite of puffy-edged Neapolitan pizza draped with mortadella and pistachio pesto to the delicate ribbons of house-made fettuccine smothered in buttery porcini mushrooms.
Of course, I have no idea if the Auntie Anne's pretzel demographic is going to embrace toothy rigatoni tossed in earthy chicken liver ragu, terra cotta crocks of golden-braised rabbit "casalinga" over slow-simmered polenta, or the curling, char-kissed arms of wood-grilled octopus. The dining room, rollicking when I arrived at 7:30 on a recent Wednesday night, was virtually empty by 9:30.
But Vetri and his collaborators, co-owner Jeff Benjamin and partner-chefs Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence, have delivered a faithful satellite that will be spot-on familiar to fans of the original, from the brick- and glass-pane-accented dining room (just as noisy as on North Broad) to the authentic Italian cooking under experienced chef de cuisine Mike Deganis, plus superb service that features multiple wine stewards roaming the floor.
What Philadelphians might not recognize when bearded Steve Wildy, beverage wiz Scott Senner, or charming sommelier Catherine "Cat" Fanelli sidle up with the iPad list of 150 labels are the shockingly fair prices - in some cases 33 percent less than the same wine in Philadelphia. With free-market wholesale discounts in New Jersey unavailable in state-run Pennsylvania, you can drink well from the high end (Littorai pinot for $95, versus $143 in Philly) to the low ($29, instead of $43, for Fattoria Laila Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi).
There are serious craft beers (Le Baladin Nora on draft) and distinctive cocktails (Negroni Blanco), too. But the fact that Osteria is using its liquor license to pour such quality in a neighborhood dominated by commercial brands is key.
The exorbitant cost of liquor licenses near South Jersey's malls - including $1 million for this one in Moorestown - is a primary reason more independents haven't settled in. Osteria's agreement to lease its license from the landlord Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) should become the model for more. Jose Garces' Distrito will become Osteria's mall neighbor soon.
And for South Jersey's dining scene, suddenly rising with new indie-restaurateur energy, it's significant.
"Osteria Jersey is already more of a neighborhood restaurant than Osteria in the city," Vetri says. "This mall is their neighborhood. It's their Main Street."
It's a culture that Abington-born Vetri knows well. He grew up piercing ears at the Crown Jewel kiosks that his father, Sal, owned in local malls from Oxford Valley to, yes, even Moorestown.
But the real magic trick here - making the view of that vast mall parking lot and giant Sears sign disappear once you step inside and smell the wood grill - is the same that helped the first Osteria's devotees look past the bleak streetscape of North Broad: food that exudes genuine handcraft and soul.
The Osteria concept is also flexible enough to suit a variety of occasions and budgets. Casual meal before a movie at the mall's newly rehabbed cinema? Share a thin-crusted pizza for less than $20 (the Margherita, prosciutto-topped Parma, or zucca with squash and golden raisins are my current favorites), followed by Osteria's vegetable antipasti platter (the best turnip and beet advertisement ever).
But Osteria can step up to special-occasion status faster than you can say "Fiorentina," as in the big shared rib-eyes for two, which range from $70 to $100, depending on whether you want that fine Creekstone beef dry-aged. The lower-tiered chop was exceptional enough, richly marbled and served with a creamy side of truffled brussels sprout gratin.
My ultimate Osteria splurge, though, is the $36 lobster spaghetti, a dish so intensely infused with lobster-ness - the sauce enriched with tomalley and roe, plus a stock fortified with shells - that casual seafood pasta eaters might not love it at first. But with the tender meat from a 11/2-pounder twined up in the al dente strands, a flicker of spice, brandy, and basil lighting the sauce, it was soon impossible to resist. (Plus, it's no longer available in Philly.)
Many of Osteria's other great dishes are more subtle. The sweet pop of poached shrimp, for example, against shaved fennel and tangy bursts of juicy citrus. Or the juicy cubes of grilled swordfish skewers, with a clever "risotto" of multicolored cauliflowers cut into rice-sized florets and glazed in creamy onion-cauliflower puree. Even the excellent house-made charcuterie platter (from rounds of belly-wrapped pancetta to fennel-fragrant salami) hit another level because of its condiment - sweet, tingly "mostarda" of candied artichoke leaves.
Osteria's pastas are largely understated in their elegance, from the postage stamp-sized Francobolli ravioli stuffed with robiola cheese beneath ribbons of royal trumpet mushrooms to the sweet and savory tortelli stuffed with squash. A small "lasagnetta" crock is layered with heady pheasant stew and pasta sheets so sheer, the overlapped edges crinkle up brown and crunchy like fried leaves.
I've never been a big fan of Osteria's wild boar Bolognese because the house-extruded candele pasta tubes are too soft, and remind me of mushy socks. It was one of the few disappointments here, along with a carpaccio pizza whose crust overwhelmed the carelessly wadded slices of raw meat. The octopus on the pulpo pizza, as well, was not as tender as it was on my first-visit appetizer.
Those small disappointments, though, were easily erased by the pleasant memory of some powerful rustic flavors: the spit-roasted pig deconstructed into its fennel-infused shoulder, rib, and a crackling sheet of skin; a milk-braised tender slice of veal breast finished with a wisp of wood smoke; or the exquisitely moist little quails, stacked over polenta with tiny links of winey Luganega sausage beneath a brown buttered froth of rendered pancetta. And, finally, the cold silk of Osteria's gelati and sorbetti melting on my tongue with vivid flavors of Sicilian pistachio, milky fior di latte stracciatella streaked with caramel, and bright Meyer lemon.
Is it special enough that the tired mall-food paradigm has been irreversibly altered for the better by Vetri's crew? Potentially, yes. Osteria Moorestown is good enough that it will be the ultimate test.