Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Craig LaBan reviews Birra

The sign outside of Birra. ( Colin Kerrigan / )
The sign outside of Birra. ( Colin Kerrigan / )
The sign outside of Birra. ( Colin Kerrigan / ) Gallery: Birra
Birra Video: Birra
About the restaurant
1700 E. Passyunk Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19148
Neighborhood: East Passyunk Parking: On street, nearby lot
Handicap access: Fully accessible
Hours: Menu served Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight.; Friday and Saturday, until 1 a.m.
Prices: $$
Payment methods:
American Express
Cuisine type: American; Italian; Pub
Meals Served: Lunch - Mon. thru Sun. Dinner - Mon. thru Sun. Late Night - Fri., Sat.
Style: Owner Gordon Dinerman has the right idea with his fun and casual revamp of a corner pizza-and-beer concept, emphasizing craft brews (many Italian), and pizzas with unconventional toppings (pasta) and shapes. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s ambitions are consistently stifled by poor execution and less-than-stellar recipes, leaving the lively central bar and sidewalk seating as the best reason to visit this latest East Passyunk hot spot.
Specialties: Spreads and breads; salumi; cheese; wild mushroom salad; roasted porchetta; scampi prawns; meatballs; spaghetti and meatballs pizza (birra bowl best); gabagool pizza; strawberry-white chocolate tiramisu.
Alcohol: Under the guidance of beer guru Jessica Fox, Birra has assembled a broad and surprisingly large collection of craft brews for such a small place, with 9 drafts and 40-plus bottles (and cans) ranging from West Coast IPAs to Michigan stouts and a nice starter collection of pricier Italian ales. The handful of other Euros (Dupont saison; Ayinger brau weisse) are worthwhile.
Weekend noise: A boisterous 92 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

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!

Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or, or on Twit­ter at @CraigLaBan.

Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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