Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of Oct. 7, 2014:
Craig LaBan: The meatball platter at Osteria's Jersey branch in the Moorestown Mall was a dish we had to get after clicking on a promo-tweet from the restaurant. We canceled our original plans for a celebration dinner and made a beeline across the Ben Franklin Bridge because . . . it was my birthday, darn it, and I WANTED THOSE MEATBALLS! Unfortunately, it was one of the few highlights of what was an unexpectedly disappointing meal that today is cause for a rating change. I came for the meatballs, but packed one of Osteria Jersey's bells to go.
When Osteria opened its Jersey sib earlier this year, it was to 3-bell acclaim - and deservedly so. The Vetri crew had essentially opened a cross-river twin of its iconic Broad Street hit, with better wine prices (and lobster spaghetti). It was a great addition to South Jersey's ever-improving dining scene. Then again, was it really as good as the original? It wasn't easy to tell the difference early on, with members of the company's A-team working there at different times for the opening months until the reviews came in. At one meal, chef de cuisine Mike Deganis was working alongside both Vetri's chef partners Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence. Beverage director Steve Wildy was helping the front-house staff.
Eight months later, however, Osteria Jersey appears to have settled in at a lower level in food and service. Many details that usually elevate Osteria's rustic Italian cooking seemed to fall just short. The Margherita pizza had the right bright flavors and delicate crust - but was no longer hot when it arrived. The veggie antipasti was skimpy, with hardly enough Brussels sprouts for each of us to taste, the wood platter dominated instead by a giant pile of arugula that was so salty it was inedible. Too little salt, meanwhile, left our old favorite chicken liver rigatoni flat. The individual components of the dish we came for (the meatballs, sausage, and homemade rigatoni) were fantastic, but together with the sauce, the dish as a whole was also underseasoned.
By dessert, a pasty cheesecake buried beneath a landslide of pungent cinnamon dust, Osteria Jersey's two-bell fate was sealed. The young service was friendly enough, but lacked the usual Vetri vision and attentive polish. I was given an iPad wine list, but then no one ever returned to ask if I wanted a glass (so I never ordered one). And beside my uneaten cake, which might have prompted a query ("Did you not like it?") the table was still strewn with wilted arugula leaves - uncleaned since the first course.
Expansion is always a risky endeavor - especially with the challenges of suburban staffing. But this was unexpected, obviously, since we'd chosen Osteria for my birthday dinner. And the Vetri crew had so far been immune to such inconsistencies because of its exceptionally deliberate approach to growth and a long track record of excellence. But consistency matters, especially for restaurants with high ratings and prices (dinner for 4 = $214). For the time being, the Moorestown Osteria now rings in at two bells, not three.