There's been some controversy about the propriety of the name "Osteria" for this restaurant: it's a little more upscale and expensive than one might expect to find under that moniker in Italy. Instead of a humble wine-bar with food as a side-note, the food really shines here, and despite the casual feel, one can easily drop some serious money. But as the more accessible cousin to the upscale restaurant Vetri, it it is somewhat osteria-like, offering an affordable, more approachable access to Marc Vetri's food. And it's also possible to just drop in and have a glass of wine, munch on a pizza or some cured meats, maybe a plate of pasta, and leave it at that. But I've rarely had the discipline to do that, there's simply too much on the menu that's irresistible. The pizzas are wonderful, I don't think I've managed a single visit without at least splitting one as a starter. And sitting at the back bar, sampling a few wines by the glass, and having a pizza is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening.
I've become convinced that the bar is the best place to sit, especially when alone, but even in groups of 2 or 3. It's very comfortable for eating, one can interact with the friendly bartenders, and I inevitably end up in a conversation with someone interesting. One important point: I'm speaking of the bar at the back of the restaurant, not the bar overlooking the kitchen. That kitchen-overlook seemed like such a great idea, I've eaten at similar bars in other restaurants, and have really enjoyed watching the buzz of activity on the line. But this space was simply not designed correctly - it feels cramped, there's no real view of the kitchen, servers can only stand behind you, making the interaction generally strained. it's better than getting no seat at all, but it's my least favorite place to experience this restaurant.
The menu changes frequently, reflecting seasonal produce, and just the general mood of the time of year - lighter things in the spring and summer, heartier in the fall and winter. But there are a few constants, and small variations on other dishes, so one can usually find something familiar, even if that one great dish you had last time isn't there anymore.
If you have the appetite, especially if with a few people who will share, treat yourselves to a pizza, one or two of the antipasti, then pasta and a secondo or two. Oh, and leave room for dessert... That's a lot of food, and a lot of money, but it's all worth exploring.
If you feel like keeping it a little lighter, I'd actually suggest skipping the mains, they're very good, but Osteria really shines with the pizza and pastas, the salumi, and the small dishes listed under "antipasti."
The pizzas change frequently, and there's not a large number of them. And most are somewhat unusual, but suspend your disbelief for a minute and go ahead and try a pizza with octopus on it, or a runny egg, or figs and speck, or snails and spring garlic. If that all sounds too weird, there's always the pristine "Margarita" with just a little sauce, some good fresh cheese, and a scattering of basil. It largely comes down to the crust, and the Osteria crew rarely disappoints, providing a crackly, slightly charred crust, with great flavor and texture. It's not a traditional Neapolitan crust, it's more of a flatter, crunchier Roman style, but you'll quickly stop worrying about those distinctions as you crunch into it.
Osteria cures its own salumi in-house, all except for the excellent imported prosciutto. The specific components will change based on what they have ready at the moment, but it's always quite good. We've had terrific porchetta, lardo, testa, and several different types of salami.
There's usually a special antipasto platter featuring an array of seasonal vegetables, often roasted or marinated. It's not necessarily anything earth-shattering, but it is indeed a pleasant way to start a meal, especially in a group.
The octopus may be the best I've had anywhere, perfectly tender and delicate, with a complexity of flavor from the assertive char, and lemony dressing.
"Ciareghi" house made cotechino sausage with polenta and sunny-side up with soft polenta and egg succeeds on its simplicity, and the intriguing spicing of the sausage.
Burratta is best left alone, letting the creamy cheese be itself, and Osteria does just that, dressing it simply with good olive oil.
This is undoubtedly the best tripe I've ever had, surprisingly tender, almost melting into the cheese-topped tomato sauce. I'm not even that big of a fan of tripe, and I'd get this again.
Snails wrapped with pancetta, over creamy polenta. They seem to have a way with snails here, so go ahead and order whatever permutation they're offering, they're always tender and earthy.
These ravioli are so delicate, they just barely contain the creamy Robiola cheese that is the filling. The tender woodsy mushrooms lend another note, while the butter sauce (OK pretty much just pool of butter) is almost over-the-top rich. It's a smallish serving, and good thing too, any more would be too much. We've had other ravioli, with fillings ranging from eggplant to pork, and they're always amazingly light and fragile, and I've loved them all. A few of the pastas have buttery sauces, and it can get to be too much, so order carefully, you probably don't want more than one of those at any given dinner.
Candele with Boar Bolognese is a winter classic, with firm tubes of pasta coated with a dense, hearty sauce of ground pork.
Gnocchi Sardi with pancetta and peas doesn't really have a sauce to speak of, nor does it need any. The wheat-based pasta (not a potato or cheese-based gnocchi) has a wonderful firm texture, and the combination of ham, peas and parmesan is classic for a reason!
Fusilli with Favas and mint just screams spring, and its elegant simplicity made it a favorite that I ordered several times.
Asparagus Lasagne with Taleggio was oozing buttery richness, but the sharp bite of the vegetables and feathery layers of pasta made this a winner.
Basically: don't miss the pastas. Osteria makes them all in-house, even the dried, extruded shapes, courtesy of an elaborate and expensive machine. The Candele with Wild Boar Ragu is hearty and satisfying, the perfect cold-weather dish. A plate of linguine with sardines, raisins, pinenuts and toasted bread crumbs was boldly strong-flavored and oily, and absolutely delicious. The selection changes constantly, so it's hard to be bored.
Braised Pork Ribs on Polenta
Roasted Pork Leg
Stuffed baby lamb "allo spiedo" with soft polenta and rosemary.
Halibut with Botarga featured wonderfully light, moist fish, sparked up with the salty funkiness of the dried roe.
Pork Milanese is straightforward breaded pork, served with lemon and arugula, but it's so perfectly executed, served on the bone to enhance flavor, that it's one of our favorites. A roasted duck, served with concord grapes and cabbage, had wonderfully crispy skin on the moist sliced breast, and tender leg.
We've often been so enamored of the starters that we've skipped these main course completely, but we've never been disappointed in them when we've gotten them.
The homemade gelato or sorbetto is always worth getting. Once can get up to three different flavors, or all of the same, and we've only once been disappointed (a coconut sorbetto had a surprising, and unpleasant, chile burn.) The pistachio gelato is especially good, but they've all been pretty delicious.
Perhaps the best dessert is the Polenta Budino, a sweet cornmeal pudding, studded with candied hazelnuts. Osteria also makes an outstanding cheese plate, with interesting selections and thoughtful accompaniments. Or consider the Nutella Pizza - we've never had room to take the plunge, but we've seen them go out, and it's hard to imagine that the double-crusts from that pizza oven, filled with oozing chocolate, and dusted with sugar, could be anything short of spectacular.
Oh, and they pull a good espresso too.
All of this wonderful food is enhanced by an all-Italian wine program that offers a wide variety by the glass, thanks to a sophisticated preservation system. They stock a thoughtful selection of lesser-known wines, often from innovative producers. I always learn something new by sampling something unfamiliar from their list. It's also worth asking if they have anything available that's not been printed-up, they sometimes have opened a bottle for a special occasion and might just sell you a glass if you show some interest. Full disclosure: I have benefited from a few free glasses of wine, and uncountable small tastes, thanks to the generosity of the bartenders and sommeliers. Most of these arose out of simply engaging the staff in conversation about the wines, they seem to be sincerely excited about the wines, and want people to try something new. The wine selection changes more frequently than the menu, so there's always something new to explore. The sommeliers are very well-informed, and are happy to help with choosing good matches with your food, even for just a glass or two, so feel free to avail yourself of their expertise.
Unexpectedly, there's an excellent beer list as well, and some interesting-looking cocktails.
In short, Osteria is one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia, and at a price-point low enough to allow one to visit with some regularity. It's NOT cheap: pizzas are priced in the upper teens, a couple break the $20 mark; antipasti and pastas are in the mid-teens; secondi are in the mid-to-upper twenties. Wines are fairly-priced overall, with several glasses under $10, along with a few splurges. Bottles range widely, but there's plenty to choose from in the $40-60 range. I've often been a little surprised at how high the bill gets by the end, but never felt it wasn't worth it. It's one of my favorite places to go, sometimes by myself for a quick pizza or pasta, or sometimes with larger groups for more special occasions. And the place lends itself to both, it can be a casual stop for some light fare, or a fancy splurge. In both scenarios, the food's delicious.
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