Osteria: 'The single best all-purpose restaurant'

When Vetri switched exclusively to tasting menus last year, its more accessible sibling, Osteria, gained an even greater focus.

This larger and more casual trattoria space had already earned a major following in the hands of partner and chef Jeff Michaud, 34, himself a James Beard award winner. It has my nod as the city's second-best Italian (after Vetri itself, where he was a former chef). And in the five years since it opened, it has come to embody the rustic spirit that predominated when Vetri first opened, from the marvelous roasted-vegetable antipasto, to the gossamer sliced prosciutto, soulfully braised rabbit, spit-roasted suckling pig, inventive seasonal pastas, and wood-fired pizzas that set the standard for our current pizza craze.

With more choices to customize a meal, it's no wonder many longtime Vetri devotees now name Osteria as their favorite. It may very well be the single best all-purpose restaurant in the city, perfect for a family event, date night, or power lunch, with a top-notch wine list to sate any Italian-vino nerd.

That one-space-fits-all virtue, though, is a liability when it comes time to shift a dinner into rarefied four-bell finesse. Michaud has it in him, but his vast and bustling restaurant wasn't quite built with that gear in mind.

I would come any night, though, for any number of delights I've enjoyed recently: a creamy Gorgonzola flan with late-season peaches and chanterelles; tortellini stuffed with creamy lentils in capon broth studded with cubes of cinnamon-scented cotechino sausage. An exquisite fall pasta turned the tortellini paradigm inside out, with a crimson filling of reduced tomato on the inside, and creamy burrata cheese on the plate. The chicken-liver rigatoni is more irresistible than I'd ever imagined. And crispy-edged slices of homemade mortadella, streaked with pistachio pesto and molten pads of mozzarella, were the highlight of Michaud's stretchy Neapolitan-dough pizza.

Ever try braised lamb neck? Osteria is your best bet to find it both sublimely tender and roasted crisp, posed over saffron beans and minted baby artichokes. It's the taste of three bells at its best.

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