From my vantage point, snug at a church-pew table at Barbuzzo and munching on the super-cracklin' "snap!" of smoky "pig popcorn," Marcie Turney looks to be on fire.
Confidently posed in the commanding chef's spot beside her open kitchen, at the end of the cool gray marble counter that lines the narrow restaurant, her cropped blond hair and flushed cheeks are framed by the leaping flames of a pizza oven as she directs the small-plate traffic into the frenzied room. Roasted long marrow bones pass by, glistening hot beneath lemon zest, shaved radishes, and blood-orange jam. Carved wooden boards laden with shaved raw brussels sprouts and creamy pumpkin polenta cubes land irresistibly before us. A crock of pork shoulder-short rib meatballs stuffed with oozing caciocavallo cheese is quickly stripped bare beneath the clickety-clack of four competing forks.
Poof! A heat burst of orange rolls up inside the oven's dome as logs of Pennsylvania oak are thrown in, cresting 800 degrees and cranking out a stream of heat-blistered pizzas topped with melting slivers of house-cured lardo, Margherita red sauce-tinged clouds of hand-pulled fior di latte mozzarella, and others topped with figs, molten blue cheese, and prosciutto.
It is a hot night at Barbuzzo, indeed, but it's been this way since it opened, as reservations have become competitive and I've actually observed walk-ins beg to be seated on a Tuesday night, to no avail. Every pew space, metal chair, and counter stool in this boisterous, narrow, 70-seat room was spoken for - and would be until the late-night close. Few new restaurants this year have opened with quite the resonance of this latest creation from Turney and her partner, Valerie Safran, the duo behind Lolita, Bindi, and three other businesses at 13th and Sansom.
For these doyennes of Midtown Village, who also own a prepared-foods store (Grocery), a chocolate and flower shop (Marcie Blaine/Verde), and a home store (Open House), Barbuzzo represents a clear step up in almost every way, from the appealing urban farmhouse motif with weathered gray salvaged wood, chandeliers made from wine-barrel staves, and a pale blue barn door adding a rustic touch that speaks to the food, to their first crack at a liquor license.
Under general manager Terence Lewis, who previously ran Fork's beverage program, they've assembled a smart and affordable 40-wine collection of small-production, food-friendly European bottles, many of which are available by the glass. There's a small but quality reserve wine list for bigger spenders, a 20-brew list of craft beers that constantly change for hop heads. And there are the usual trendy culinary cocktails with herbs, grapes, and kumquat (on the whole, a bit too light on dark spirit blends for my taste).
Most impressive, though, is Turney's kitchen, which manages to effortlessly hit some current buzz-themes - artisan pizza, sharing plates, house-made charcuterie, bone marrow - without lapsing into the abstractions of molecular gastronomy. Turney is one of the few cooks I've spoken to in recent months who isn't in love with a sous-vide machine. And as she's matured over the years and streamlined her food, her dishes rise simply on vivid rustic flavors that, despite the Mediterranean theme, channel seasonality as diligently as any menu in town.
The attention to vegetables is especially impressive, whether it's the Calabrian-style mustard greens with sopressata and oven-dried tomato, shredded raw brussels sprouts in a basil-tarragon vinaigrette with yogurt, or a roasted heirloom squash and parsnip salad, their sweet warmth playing against crisp green apples and bitter greens.
Meat lovers, though, are also indulged, with a "Sunday Supper" ragu of slow-cooked pork shoulder and house bacon for the paccheri pasta; a succulent pork chop served over ham-hock-scented white beans and kale; a soulful lamb ragu for the toothsome cavatelli; and a spot-on skirt steak topped with romesco and Serrano ham croquetas. And though the flesh is gone from that "pig popcorn" - pork skins boiled with fennel, scraped, smoked, then deep-fried into explosively crisp, airy balloons - their addictive vinegar-dusted chile snap is the kind of thing a beer-drinking butcher would adore.
Throughout the menu, house-crafted ingredients, whether the fior di latte mozzarella pulled each morning for the pizza, or the charcuterie made by chef de cuisine George Sabatino, go a long way in elevating many of these dishes. The house-smoked chorizo lends an earthy depth to the fantastic fideua, a paella pan of noodles and perfectly cooked seafood completely infused with saffron, chiles, and fennel seafood broth. Chorizo makes another worthy cameo in the crock of tender octopus. For the fabulous square-cut, squid-ink tonnarelli pasta tossed with manila clams, it added a shade of paprika and cumin that, with garlic, mint, preserved lemon, and a flicker of Calabrian heat, added up to one of the best pastas I've eaten in months.
On the pizzas, too, the house charcuterie really makes a difference, adding an extra fennel punch to the "salsiccia," or the zesty decadence of molten lardo (cured pork fat) that glosses the wild mushroom and caciocavallo cheese white pie by the same name. Turney actually went to Neapolitan pizza school in California to master the craft of dough, sauce, and cheese. And while I'm not ready to declare her deceptively simple pies the city's champ quite yet (the dough is inconsistent and not quite as delicate as Stella's, or as puffy as its neighbor, Zavino's - but Turney's toppings are superior; Osteria still tops them all), Barbuzzo belongs in the conversation, with extra style points for the little jars of oregano sprigs and Calabrian chile oil on the side.
It's a lot to master in a few months, and there were inevitably a few off dishes. The almond-milk polenta was pasty. The brown buttered gnocchi were too bouncy. The sheep's milk ricotta ravioli were overwhelmed by the tartness of balsamic.
I also wish the dining room seating didn't feel so much like retro metal lawn chairs, and that the formidable din could somehow be tamed. But then, there is a special energy to this long, narrow room, with diners feeding off the electricity of the open kitchen, that is a rare commodity, too, and it seems to capture the spirit, at once casual and sophisticated, that defines today's lively and accessible dining scene. Nothing on Barbuzzo's menu costs more than $19.
And there's little letup in that handcrafted goodness when it comes to dessert, where one can sample Turney's own chocolates, gelato with honey and the nougatine crunch of torrone, or a devilishly bright twist on tiramisu, the ladyfingers layered with blood-orange zabaglione.
My favorite ending is a chef's savory-sweet delight, a chocolate budino pudding glazed with a lid of caramel with crunchy salt - at first a disorienting touch that ultimately deepens the allure. Add a glass of Malmsey Madeira, a caramel-coffee tinged with briny tang, and you'll have a perfect match. At Barbuzzo, where Turney and Safran's growing empire is at its best, it's just one of the many resonating flavors that linger.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews the Hop Angel in Fox Chase. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.