Bright and bustling Birra seems to revolve in large part around the playful notion that great food icons can always be made even better if smushed together — especially when pizza is involved. A cheeseburger? Put it on a pie! Spaghetti and meatballs? Make a “bowl” of crust and pile those noodles in! Duck confit (or so it’s called), porchetta, macaroni and cheese, you name it: Birra has what chef Andrew Fox calls a “bonkers” creation for you. There’s even a ball of pizza dough stuffed with ice cream, too.
Whether any of these turned out to be actually enjoyable is another question (which I’ll get to shortly). But I give owner Gordon Dinerman plenty of credit for vision. With the pizza revolution raging continuously onward and upward in the city’s other wards, trendy East Passyunk was due for a pizzeria remake, as 85-year-old Marra’s, its brick oven still wheezing old-school South Philly pies and uninspired red-gravy plates just down the block, is in desperate need of competition.
And as an attempt to update the pizza-and-beer paradigm, Birra is, in concept, a charmer. With its corner windows slung open to sidewalk seating, cheery hues of pastel green on the walls, mahogany wood-slat banquettes, and red zebrawood tabletops ringing the central bar, Birra embodies the youthful but stylish spirit that’s surging along the now fully revived “Avenue.” Add in small plates and charcuterie platters for starters and a big list of craft beers, and Birra is spring-loaded to welcome the thirsty masses of tattooed hipsters that have now made “E’Punk” both their home and a destination. It isn’t uncommon to find families there, before the late-night crowd flows in. And those crowds have been so steady — many of them spilling off the margarita-splashed sidewalk beside Cantina Los Caballitos — that I suspect the underwhelming quality of the pizzas will not be a deterrent to Birra’s success.
But it could be so, so much better.
The bar, overseen by beer guru Jessica Fox (she’s married to the chef), is one of Birra’s best assets (which, given the name, Italian for “beer,” is to be expected). I love that Birra has embraced the budding Italian beer trend, from the coffee-tinged Del Ducato Verdi Stout to the pricey but artful large-format Brutons, to even the refreshing Peroni on draft. There are other great brews, as well, including nine on draft (with several locals), and more than 40 in bottles and cans, with a focus on IPAs and Michigan stouts.
It is the limited success of the menu, though, that’s holding Birra back. Our first bites were promising, especially when a ceramic skillet of giant head-on prawns arrived bathed in anchovy butter. The “spreads and breads” was also a great way to begin, with wedges of fresh flatbread, baguettes (from Artisan Boulanger Patissier across the street), and a trio of tasty dips — minced cured olives, white bean hummus, and sweet roasted garlic puree. And we also enjoyed the charcuterie platter that included sheer slices of oregano-tinged house-cured duck prosciutto.
When the pizzas arrived, though, Birra’s kitchen began to slip — not promising for a pizzeria. And it’s not so much the goofiness of the combinations (Dinerman, a longtime Starr manager at Buddakan and Barclay Prime, got his idea for bowl-shaped pizzas while living in Chicago) as it is a matter of executing the details.
It begins with the basics. The dough, made with a quick-rise one-day process (versus the more typical slower-fermenting recipes), is one-dimensionally crunchy on a flat pie, dense and prone to sogginess when shaped into a bowl (think deep, deep dish). The tomato sauce has an acidic edge, and the frequent addition of slow-roasted roma tomatoes, which I found a strange and distracting texture on something as deliberately simple as a Margherita. The chunky tomatoes were less of a bother (though not a plus, either) with spaghetti and meatballs pie, which was probably the best of the novelty offerings — the noodles baked to an extra little crunch, the meatballs tender with veal and milk-soaked bread. But the addition of tomato sauce and “white sauce” (molten crème fraîche) to the “cheeseburger” pizza completely disconnected Birra’s rendition from anything resembling its namesake. The sesame-dusted pickles were a highlight, but two of my favorite foods had essentially dissolved into one disastrous, indistinguishable heap. The macaroni and cheese “Birra bowl,” meanwhile, was simply boring.
In all cases, I preferred white pies with the creamier ricotta topping, though our carbonara pizza spun out with chunks of house-cured pancetta that were so salty they were inedible. The duck confit — actually roasted then picked off the bone, for another shortcut — was both unpleasantly tough and bland.
There were seasoning problems, meanwhile, in the dressing for both of our salads: all oil and too little acidity for the greens topped with roasted beets, and the otherwise tasty salad with mushrooms. The scallops, clumsily wrapped in bundled wads of too much speck, were both overcooked and overwhelmed by the ham’s smoky twang. The roasted asparagus, supposedly marinated, tasted completely unseasoned.
Some of these second-visit goofs were likely the result of a Tuesday night without the boss: “The chef’s out drinking with his family,” our waitress conceded. That explained, perhaps, why the cheese plate was misidentified numerous times, as the Moses Sleeper we ordered became “Monte Enebro” by the time it was brought to the table, and actually turned out, in fact, to be Purple Haze.
But a number of slips here simply showed recipes in need of serious tweaking. This kitchen is perfectly capable of slow-roasting a good pork loin (and the “porchetta” is tender and flavorful, especially in a panini with sharp provolone and garlic pesto). So why was the brisket so dry and tough? The roasted chicken, meanwhile, was tender from a brine, but also still so steeped with sodium it was like eating a bird-shaped salt lick.
Dessert offers no respite from Birra’s clumsy food-plays, with a sticky toffee pudding that was, in fact, a brownielike thing that was neither sticky nor a moist pudding. There was a baked ice cream, somewhere, hidden deep inside an overthick layer of almond paste, which itself was wrapped in an impenetrable ball of dough, one of Birra’s least successful experiments with pizza dough. Imagine my surprise, then, when the last dish I encountered — a towering mash-up of strawberry shortcake and tiramisu — turned out to be lovely, fluffy, and light. For Birra and its wacky combo cooking, there is hope!