Authentic Neapolitan pizza. A big open kitchen with a wood-fired hearth and grill. Fresh semolina pasta in sauce that isn't "red gravy." Salumi cured on-site. House-spun gelati.
Such handcrafted delights may seem almost common these days. But when Osteria opened just over a decade ago, it was the first to put them all together under one roof with an ambitious scope and level of artisanship that set the bar for those trends citywide. And more than a few were skeptical such a place would last long on a stretch of North Broad Street that didn't know its salumi from its Subarus.
But what a decade it's been, filled with so many francobolli robiola raviolis the size of postage stamps, so much rigatoni tossed in the rustic savor of chicken liver rage, so many spit-roasted porchettas and antipasti platters with charred Brussels sprouts, so many wine dinners and Lombarda pizzas topped with cotechino and cracked eggs, that it's quite possible Osteria lately has been a little taken for granted. Even as it remains one of the busiest, most reliable all-event destinations in town.
Which is why I worried, of course, when it was sold two years to Urban Outfitters along with most of the other Vetri restaurants. I fretted even more recently when two of Osteria's three cofounders, Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin, officially left Urban, too.
Pizzeria Vetri? Ready-made to for corporate expansion. Even the slightly simpler Roman fare at Amis seems "scalable" enough for Urban to replicate, as it already has in Connecticut and will in Devon soon. But Osteria is a unique and complex creature (as the failure of its outpost in the Moorestown Mall proved).
Urban has shown some effort to keep it fresh. It invested "a couple hundred thousand" last year to brighten the industrial space with wood accents, new tables, chandeliers, and a fresh blush of cherry stain for the poured-concrete floor. The deep Italian wine cellar has grown larger than ever to almost 400 labels under sommelier Frank Kinyon, earning a recent upgrade award from the Wine Spectator.
But my concerns were also put temporarily at ease at a very recent visit, when I found cofounder Jeff Michaud in his chef whites working the open kitchen and dining room, where we also spotted star chef Greg Vernick off-duty and showing some chef friends from out of town one of his local favorites.
"I'm here four to five nights a week," says Michaud, who is also Urban's culinary director for Terrain. "Osteria is still my baby."
With young chef de cuisine Jesse Grossman tending the wood-fired grill, we had one of our best Osteria meals in recent memory. A massive pork chop was slow-cooked over the embers to juicy seasonal perfection, with roasted moons of delicata squash and rich walnut pesto. In years past, I've enjoyed it with peaches and porcini.
The classic francobolli were as amazing as ever, with huge bursts of pungent cheese flavor from the tiny ravioli ("that's our sexy pasta," says Michaud.)
A pheasant rage appeared to be deceptively plain. But the ground meat sauce, accented with a fennel hit of Strega liqueur, carried a deep resonance inside the tubes and ridges of house-extruded cresto di gallo, pasta, a macaroni whose elbow shapes are edged with a fin of pasta reminiscent of a cockscomb.
That knack for capturing memorable flavors from rustic cooking is consistent from years past, whether it was Michaud's famous rabbit "casalinga" over soft polenta, or an old-school veal breast — trussed, rubbed with anchovy, and roasted over flames, braised tender and then finished to an outer crisp atop a creamy salsa gribiche.
Perhaps the most memorable dish of my recent dinner, though, was also the most unexpected, a "carpaccio" of fresh figs whose ripe ruby center flesh was pressed on the plate into a round scattered with toasted pistachios, delicate watercress and a snow of frozen Gorgonzola shavings. There was something so purely luscious about the contrast of that sweet pulp against the snap of lacy greens and toasty nuts, and then the finishing tang of that sweet blue melting in the heat of each bite, that I hardly missed the meat normally associated with carpaccio. I was also reminded that another of Osteria's great contributions to Philadelphia's dining scene was its reverence for and mastery of vegetarian cooking.
The antipasto plate (sometimes more bountiful than others), with charred Brussels sprouts, multicolored beets, fennel and other delights, is the most famous example, and still an essential starter.
But something about that fig dish carried something extra. It was inspired by the fig trees that ring the house of Michaud's mother-in-law in Bergamo, Italy, Giuseppina Carrara, whose land is so rich with the fruit that her family would never deign to eat the skin. Just the heart of those ripe jewels get scooped out for their enjoyment.
And it is that wondrous bounty of the Italian good life that Michaud and his crew still manage to channel here. It's genuine taste of Italy — personalized and deftly updated by one of Philly's most accomplished chefs — that is still alive and well at Osteria.