In my recent review of West Passyunk’s Stina Pizzeria, I hailed chef Bobby Saritsoglou’s octopus as the best new octo dish in town, but I haven’t abandoned my previous favorites — and Philly has so many good and different examples.
A lot people don’t realize how deeply the octo is ensconced in our restaurant landscape. But Yelp, which recently analyzed keywords from 15 years’ worth of city reviews, determined that “grilled octopus” was actually one of the top 20 phrases that characterized Philly (alongside “hoagie,” “cheesesteak,” and “beer list.”) The Octo-Philly passion is real!
It’s been a local obsession since at least 1990, when Dmitri’s (795 S. Third St.) in Queen Village began grilling the city’s O.G. octo simply over the coals Greek-style, slicing those arms down into tender, meaty white chunks with lemon, olives, and pepperoncini. (In fact, the dish was predated by a similar version at South Street Souvlaki, 509 South St., where Dmirtri’s owner, Dmitri Chimes, previously worked). Either way, local diners have responded with an eight-arm embrace.
You will see excellent traditional takes at many restaurants influenced by the Mediterranean, from the Italian classic at Palizzi Social Club (1408 S. 12th St.), where it’s slow-poached in a court-bouillon with corks then grilled with salsa verde, to the cross-cut coins of Gallego-style pulpo glazed in olive oil with potatoes and smoked paprika at Amada (217-219 Chestnut St.). Most all of the Greek restaurants in town now also do outstanding versions, including Cypriot Kanella Grill (1001 Spruce St.), Zesty’s (4382 Main St.) in Manayunk, and Estia (1405-07 Locust St.), which even has a special washing machine to spin-cycle the beast to proper tenderness — a thumping inspired by the Mediterranean tradition of beating it against the rocks.
Achieving perfect tenderness is one considerable factor that makes cooking octopus a technical challenge. I recently ate an unfortunate version at Rouge, for example, that was so undercooked and rubbery, my teeth could hardly snap through it. Then again, I don’t want it to be too tender, either. Mushy octopus is gross, no matter how much the kitchen chars it on the grill.
Chef Biff Gottehrer practically gives his big octopuses a spa treatment at Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft in Ardmore (29 E. Lancaster Ave.), where the tentacles get rubbed with coarse salt and oregano and massaged with whole garlic cloves before they’re steeped low and slow in olive oil for a couple hours. Grilled, then served over black olive oil, smoked tomatoes, fresh ricotta, and charred apples, it was one of the best I’ve had recently.
Another outstanding and unique version can be found at Friday Saturday Sunday (261 S. 21st St.), where chef Chad Williams poaches his octo in red wine vinegar, then marinates it in chilies and cumin. The thick, tender plugs of sliced octopus get crisped in a steel pan before making their appearance over a stew of Rancho Gordo beans that get sauced with a sublimely rustic Mexican menudo broth infused with earthy cumin, tripe, and guajillo chilies.
The octo at Stina (1705 Snyder Ave.), though? It was like a work of cephalopod art, its long arm draped like an “S” across a plate dappled with flowers, curving between dramatic swipes of black garlic sauce, scoops of olive tapenade, and smoky red romesco, with a whiff of citrus ash made from dehydrated lemons. The flavors evoked a dreamy Greek vacation. And the texture was spot-on — tender but firm, with a perfect exterior crisp that absorbed a wisp of wood smoke from the pizza oven. It is a top tentacle, indeed, but in a city blessed with many.