EVER SINCE Food and Wine
magazine named Marc Vetri one of the country's best new chefs in 1999, Philadelphia foodies have treated him as if he were captain of the high school football team - a local hero who can do no wrong, destined to bring the national spotlight to our community.
I have to admit that I was one of the cheerleader wannabees in the booster club. I never left Vetri, a small, 35-seat restaurant on Spruce Street, thinking, "Wow, I just spent over a month's worth of groceries on one meal!"
No, I'd see the chef whiz by on his Vespa and wonder, "Two, four, six, ate: When can I afford that sexy quail-egg ravioli, mate?"
But when Vetri and his managing partner, Jeff Benjamin, met with developer Eric Blumenfeld and the North Broad restaurant Osteria was hatched, many speculated that the hands-on, perfectionist chef wouldn't have what it takes to manage a larger second kitchen with (depending on how you count) 100 seats to cover.
After several months, the consensus is that his trust in Jeff Michaud, the former Vetri sous chef-turned Osteria executive chef, is well-placed. If my rating included knives and spoons, I'd give Osteria a full place setting.
A visit will still hit your wallet, although strategic ordering helps. Two people can share an appetizer, pasta course and main dish. But you'll definitely have sticker shock when you see a pizza that can cost $15 to $24.
Still, it's not your everyday pizza. The crust is thin, thin, thin and crisped to perfection in the wood-burning oven. Light, airy and not overdressed, Osteria pizza works as an appetizer easily shared by four.
We're not talking take-out, hungry-man meat toppings here, but rather something more elegant. The combinations range from a simple tomato, basil and mozzarella to a baked egg, bitto cheese, mozzarella and cotechino sausage offering.
The Vegetable Antipasto ($12) changes daily with what's available, in keeping with Vetri's philosophy to take the freshest ingredients and treat them authentically. Most memorable were the roasted beets.
The fish crudo ($12) also varies with the what's freshest. Morsels of yellowtail melted in my mouth, countered by a zingy hit of acid from the lime marinade and a crunchy sliver of heirloom radish. It was as good as anything I've had at New York's Esca, the crudo capital of the culinary world.
The Salumi ($14) offers a variety of cured meats which, other than the Proscuitto di Parma, are made in the Vetri curing room. If knowing that testina is made from an animal's head will keep you from enjoying it, then don't ask and the wait staff won't tell. It's delicious.
While all the Vetri-made meats are fantastic, I prefer Prosciutto di San Danielle, with its softer, more-rounded texture and flavor. However, this was one dish that was a skimpy portion, so you don't get enough prosciutto to make the distinction matter.
All the pasta is made in-house. The White Eggplant Ravioli with Anchovies ($16) was a tender pasta and succulent filling. If you are not an anchovy lover, by all means, order without.
The Robiola Francobolli ($16) would have been my favorite dish, but several of my ravioli lost their cheese innards on the way to my plate.
Those that arrived intact, however, were as unctuous as the quail-egg ravioli of my Vetri memory. Robiola cheese is a creamy triple threat made from cow, goat and sheep milk, and was a natural pairing with the light-as-air pasta.
The roasted half-chicken ($24) was perfectly cooked at just the right internal temperature to keep the meat moist. Yet, the skin was as crisp as bacon!
And I presume from the fuss made in the menu about its Lancaster origins that this chicken had a happy life in the barnyard.
The Wild Alaskan Salmon ($28) was served over juicy white asparagus with an egg and white truffle sauce. The earthy aroma of the truffle was a great match with the wild salmon and grassy asparagus.
The desserts cover a wide range. My guests and I sampled a Polenta Pudding ($8) that is a grown-up kids dish - a mixture of fruit and a creamy cereal.
On the other end was an over-the-top molten cake dessert (inexplicably called Chocolate Flan) served with a scoop of pistachio gelato ($10). Both divine no matter what you call them.
The Wood Oven Roasted Peaches ($8) were served with wedges of a rustic cake that was satisfying in its simplicity.
And if simple, fresh flavors are what you crave after a big meal, try the sorbet and gelato ($8). This is one to share, as the portions are more than ample.
Service is adequate, but the team approach leaves a little "who's on first" element. There were times when we were inundated with servers attending to us, followed by long lapses when we couldn't get anyone's attention.
Exactly who was waiting on us? I'm not looking for "Hi my name is Candy and I'll be your server tonight," but given an ever-changing sea of faces, it's tough to figure out.
Now, the elephant in the dining room. How will Osteria and gentrification change this North Broad neighborhood? Will longtime residents be able to stay and coexist with the high-rent condo dwellers?
Perhaps such a query isn't fodder for a restaurant review. But I can say I hope Sal's Produce Plus only a few blocks away can coexist and continue to serve up steamed crabs and hoagies - because good eats is good eats no matter what side of the economic street you dine on. *