FOOD & DRINK > RESTAURANT REVIEWS

Alla Spina

By Phyllis Stein-Novack
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Aug. 2, 2012

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House made sausages and braised meats accompany a vast variety of beers at Alla Spina.

Photo by Greg Bezanis

It has been nearly 14 years since chef Marc Vetri opened Vetri, his award-winning jewel box of a restaurant on the site of the original Le Bec Fin. Word quickly spread around the culinary world that Philadelphia had a truly fine chef creating Italian fare.

In 2005, Vetri received the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. Since then, Vetri has added three more restaurants.

I love Osteria on North Broad Street. I’ve been there several times and was never disappointed.

Two years ago, Amis opened, but I was not too crazy about it. Service was spotty and hot food arrived lukewarm on cold plates.

Whenever there’s a buzz that Vetri is up to something new and different, foodies mark their calendars and await the opening.

So it was with some excitement when Edward and I walked into Alla Spina, Vetri’s Italian-style gastropub right off North Broad.

Beer is king here. Alla Spina, which means “from the tap” in Italian, is a beer-lovers delight. There’s a long, friendly bar, wooden booths, looming ceilings, a wall spray-painted with graffiti and a staff that is second to none. In other words, Alla Spina is funky/casual.

I sipped an Allagash White ($5.50) while Edward toasted the locals with a Stoudt’s amber ($5).

I needed a nosh with my beer and asked for house made pretzels with spicy beer cheese ($5). A cute wooden pig was filled with sea-salt-covered nuggets of soft pretzels and a dish of almost liquid cheese, the base of which was cream cheese our delightful waiter said.

Tuscan kale with provolone ($8) was a yummy concoction of shredded, raw green, but almost black Tuscan kale topped with deep pink peppercorns and shards of slightly salty imported provolone cheese. It’s a tasty way to eat vegetables.

Ciliegine salad with corn, tomatoes, a scattering of arugula and slender threads of red chili peppers ($12) was on the small side. It was a blend of small, fresh mozzarella balls, grilled sweet white corn kernels, a scattering of ripe tomatoes and some arugula here and there. It was OK — something I could make at home.

From the “plancha” we selected Louisiana Gulf prawns ($18) served warm. Four mid-size prawns were nestled in a pool of citrus butter that served as the perfect dipping sauce for the outstanding French fries ($5), which were fried in suet. The disappointing prawns were naked on the plate. Crispy sunchokes with sea salt ($4) were not as crispy as the fries, but I liked their flavor and texture. They looked like small bites of cubed potatoes and the texture was similar. Their unique flavor is difficult to describe.

Don’t be surprised at the lack of pasta on Alla Spina’s bill of fare. This is done intentionally. Gnocchi and eggplant lasagna keep company.

Eggplant lasagna ($15) was pretty to view. Homemade wide noodles were crimped into a round ramekin and filled with eggplant strips, goat cheese bits, fresh oregano leaves and topped with heirloom tomatoes squares. It was piping hot so I had to wait a bit before figuring out how to eat it. The flavors were OK — I could truly taste the oregano, but this strong herb overpowered the goat cheese. The tomatoes were sweet and gorgeous as they should be this time of year.

Pig pot pie ($16) was a twist on the classic pot pies but lacked vegetables. Salty pork strips were mixed with a slightly rich sauce and covered in puff pastry. I mixed my fork around and found a single pea. I did not care for this dish, but Edward did.

For dessert, we shared Alla Spina’s version of budino ($8), which was downright disappointing. A footed glass contained about one-half-inch of chocolate pudding — which I found to be too sweet and was topped with homemade toasted marshmallow and a round, graham cracker-like cookie.

Vetri and Osteria always bring a smile to my face. The dishes are perfection on the plate. Restaurant reviews are opinions and I always hope my readers form their own when they dine out. I would rather save my pennies and dine at Osteria.

Two tips of the toque to Alla Spina. SPR

Alla Spina

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COMMENTS

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1. James said... on Aug 3, 2012 at 01:18PM

“Thanks for an enjoyable review. Your approach of couching the review in a story is fine, so long as the information is honest and useful, which it always is.

That said, I bring one reader's bias into the discussion. The minute I see Vetri or Starr it immediately turns me off to a restaurant. I've been to Distrito and Osteria and had, to be fair, decent meals. But the prices and attitude in these celebrity chef/entrepreneur restaurants always seem so haughty and privileged, as though I should take for granted and enjoy the opportunity to have a sauce with 13 separate exotic ingredients created by a famous person poured over my miniscule portion of whatever entree, imported from whereever international venue, with said sauce beautifully drizzled around the plate edge, where a normal person should otherwise be able to pick up said plate, all for only $26-56.

Well, Alla Spina is a swell name, but I'll seek out a nice family-run restaurant for my treat this weekend.”

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2. Phyllis Stein-Novack said... on Aug 4, 2012 at 02:22PM

“Dear James:

I appreciate your thoughts and comments. Distrito, which is a Jose Garces restaurant, was moderately priced when I reviewed it a number of years ago. Osteria, which is pricy, does, indeed, create lively vibrant delicious dishes.

Let me know where you are going to dinner this weekend.

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3. James said... on Aug 4, 2012 at 08:14PM

“I decided to go to Candelas on Adams Avenue right off Roosevelt Blvd.  You may remember it as Taste of Portugal.  The new owner has converted the downstairs restaurant to a nightclub, but the upstairs informal dining area by the bar remains.  Unfortunately he no longer offers specials, which were less expensive and always included a variety of tasty authentic dishes.  Now you'll pay $19 for a grilled whole fish and most entrees are $16 or more.  I can still recommend the food, and assume their specialty Paella is as great as ever.  I had a good seafood salad, which complemented the warm August evening.  But the higher prices, the very noisy atmosphere, the inattentive waitresses (dressed for their later nightclub duties), only one wine (Franzia), and the new cash-only policy leaves my return visit very much in doubt.  For those with a car and a yen for Portuguese seafood, there are other moderately-priced places such as Tio Pepe and Mediterranean 2000.”

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4. Phyllis Stein-Novack said... on Aug 5, 2012 at 08:36AM

“Dear James:

The location has been a Portuguese restaurant for a long time and I had many memorial meals there. They used to serve Portuguese wine. Where is Tio Pepe and Mediterranean 2000?

Phyllis”

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5. James said... on Aug 5, 2012 at 09:23AM

“Tio Pepe is on Castor Av, up from Magee St.  Mediterranean 2000 is on Bustleton Av, up from Rhawn St.  Here are links to maps and some reviews:

http://www.yelp.com/biz/cafe-resturant-tio-pepe-ii-philadelphia
http://www.yelp.com/biz/mediterranean-2000-philadelphia”

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