It was eight years ago that Osteria's magic pizzas and Francobolli ravioli convinced skeptical Philadelphians that North Broad Street could be a dinner destination.
Is the wood-fired spit at Lo Spiedo enough to now lure diners to Broad Street's most southern end? Judging from the blank stares I get whenever I say the words - "I'm heading to the Navy Yard for dinner!" - smoke signals might well be in order.
But, the chicken wings!
You'll want the wood-scented flappers that come encrusted with oregano and spice off Lo Spiedo's white oak-fired grill. (An upgrade for those slumming it Friday at Wing Bowl in the Wells Fargo Center - so close you can see it from Lo Spiedo's window.) Even the cabbages here take on a wood-roasted swagger before they land in a steel crock of molten Gorgonzola cream.
OK, so maybe even the hottest cabbages this side of the Delaware won't make you rush to head down to the deepest edge of South Philly (though free parking is ample if you do). But for the 11,500 office workers each day who now fill the 145 companies and corporate campuses that have sprouted there since Philadelphia took over the 1,000-acre Naval base in 2000, Lo Spiedo is a major score.
And Osteria co-owner Jeff Michaud, with partners Brad Spence, Jeff Benjamin and Marc Vetri, have literally planted a pioneer's flag in front of the old guardhouse just beyond the Naval Yard's still-guarded gates. During the lunch hour, I saw more than a few large work parties gathering in the glassed-in private rooms of the smartly rehabbed dining room, which has a stellar view over the docked Navy ships. And the downstairs bar, with its retro zinc bar and mosaic-tiled floor, is a busy popcorn-eating haven for Happy Hour crowds. So I can only imagine the big patio scene in front of the old brick building, when the beer garden opens in warmer months.
In the dead dark nights of winter, though, it's easier to sense the challenges Lo Spiedo faces on typical nights once the worker-bee crowds buzz home - especially as the restaurant still seems to be in the process of refining its food, service and drinks.
We didn't need our talky waiter to spend five minutes narrating the entire menu (as if we couldn't read) and then offering the dreaded unsolicited list of "my favorites . . . "
But the impulse is understandable. The food draws a central theme from its largely Italian wood-fired flavors ("lo spiedo" means "the spit"), like the rosemary-mopped spare ribs I really dug my teeth into, or the rustic half-roasted chicken beaming with citrus, smoke and herbs that was one of the best reasons to come.
But this menu, in its something-for-everyone approach, is also a little disjointed, scattered across seven different savory categories - from "stuzzichini" nibbles to paninis, a handful of pastas, big hunks of à la carte grilled meat in steel crocks, and "contorni" sides that take some odd Southern BBQ twists.
I was down with the spice-roasted carrots until ranch dressing rudely interrupted. The "Italian" baked beans were too thin, tomatoey and sweet. The creamed kale was stringy. Another regional American inspiration that should have been left on the brainstorm floor was the "New England-style" octopus roll, a hot dog bun stuffed with chopped-up octo in mayo dressing that left it vaguely fishy and unpleasantly tacky.
Two theme-bending small plates I loved: the polenta corn bread soaked in brisket drippings, and a Parmesan-creamed mac-and-cheese tossed with fantastic creste di gallo, a dual-textured pasta with a ruffled rooster crest running along the outside of its al dente elbow tube.
That this crew makes great pasta is no surprise. And two of the three other options were excellent, a frilly-ribboned reginette tossed with a flavorful Bolognese, and a rigatoni with wood-smoked tomato sauce and shaved ricotta that, at $14, is the height of affordable, simple satisfaction. The bucatini alla gricia was a miss, its guanciale chunks too big and cumbersome, the pasta oily and dull.
The meats and seafood are obviously the main event, and each brimmed with a zest of the live-fire.
The spit-roasted octopus, in contrast to the roll, was magnificent undressed on the plate, its long, tender arms kissed with little more than olive oil, lemon and char. The spice-rubbed brisket was also superbly rendered, moist and infused with smoke. But I preferred it as a composed sandwich, chopped on toasted bread with slaw and horseradish, rather than as a lonely hunk in a pan, as it is offered in the entrée section.
Likewise, Lo Spiedo grills up a flavorful, herb-blasted Fiorentina steak. But at $60 for an 18-ounce T-bone (or $120 for 36-ounces!), it's out of place on a casual menu where most offerings are $20 or less and the $14 brisket burger can be just as satisfying - provided that they cook it right. (By a second try, the chef got reasonably close to medium-rare.)
Ironically, some of Lo Spiedo's most memorable bites are vegetarian, beginning with a stellar salad of raw neck pumpkin shaved into sheer noodles and tossed with pumpkin seed vinaigrette. The sandwich of Milanese-fried celery root rounds stuffed with apple slaw was a brilliant, meat-free revelation. A potentially great escarole salad in Calabrese dressing, though, was overwhelmed by the runaway spice of chilies in its dressing.
A number of such inconsistencies across the menu - less-than-crispy Parmigiano-buttered popcorn; bland and greasy fried mozzarella; too many bones with the supposedly filleted sardine focaccia; a mushy crustacean among the already tiny portion of small shrimp spiedini - showed more rough edges than I'm used to from this talented restaurant team. Ditto for the service, which was friendly but clearly green, although our final server gracefully handled some complaints.
Among them was our mixed luck with Lo Spiedo's drinks. The beer and wine situation is solid, with several excellent craft brews (Capt. Lawrence IPA on draft) and the kind of thoughtfully chosen Italian wines (a dozen good choices by the glass and a geek-magnet "Minerology" category featuring underappreciated bottles) I've come to expect from a Vetri restaurant.
But the cocktails, while intriguing, disappointed. The porcini-infused Martinez was more funky than fun. The house-made gentian-cardamom tonic for the gin-and-tonic was flat. And the "Cotechino" punch made with clarified milk, vanilla and applejack was so sweet (not unlike the rummy, floral Geisha) it tasted like boozy apple pie.
Ordering it for dessert is a better call. And though some might go for the Devil Dogs chocolate cake sandwiched around Nutella, the perfect match for that Cotechino is an actual apple pie, roasted to sweet-crusted caramel in a cast-iron crock.
I'm not yet convinced it will help Lo Spiedo become quite the magnet destination that Osteria has become for North Broad Street. But along with the many menu's other wood-fired virtues, that pie offers just the kind of handcrafted comfort an emerging neighborhood can grow on.
VERY GOOD (2 BELLS OUT OF FOUR)
4503 S. Broad St. (at the Navy Yard), 215-282-3184; lo-spiedo.com
Transformation of the Navy Yard from isolated corporate campus to a neighborhood that Philadelphians actually know exist has begun in earnest with the arrival of Vetri & Co.'s latest, a casual restaurant-bar with food off a wood-fired spit. The handsomely rehabbed Navy guard house feels like a smart fit for the community, with a lively downstairs bar, upstairs private rooms and an accessible selection of grill-centric a la carte nibbles, from wings to whole octopus arms and tender hunks of brisket. The menu's wide reach, though, with odd Southern touches alongside expected Italian flavors, can sometimes feel off-kilter. With slightly less polished service than other Vetri projects, Lo Spiedo feels more like a needed neighborhood anchor than a must-visit citywide draw.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Chicken wings; tuna spiedini; polenta cornbread; beef tartare; ricotta and artichoke focaccia; pumpkin salad; reginette Bolognese; rigatoni with wood-roasted tomatoes; celery root Milanese sandwich; brisket burger; brisket sandwich (and entrée); pork ribs; half-chicken; spit-roasted octopus; mac and cheese; smoked beets; cabbage; cast-iron apple pie.
DRINKS The serious craft-beer list is a strength (Capt. Lawrence IPA; Boulevard Tank; Russian River; Evil Twin). The substantial Euro-centric wine list is solid, too, both by the glass (Chianti Colli Senesi; Muré Alsatian Riesling) and a substantial bottle list with many good sub-$70 choices, including a "Mineralogy" category focused on underappreciated Italian grapes (Verdicchio; Nerello Mascalese). Lots of creative energy has been spent on house-made herbal tinctures, clarified milk and other unusual savory mix-ins (porcini), but the over-sweetness of many cocktails was a turnoff.
WEEKEND NOISE There's soundproofing on the ceiling, but it hasn't kept the noise from hitting a very loud 93 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Entire menu served Monday through Thursday, 11a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, until 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Entrees, $12-$28 (Fiorentina steak, $60)
All major cards.
Free parking lot.
To see health reports from other Philadelphia eateries, check Clean Plates here.