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
Last week, I attended a performance workshop given by Jeanne Ruddy Dance. The company is premiering a work next month at Wilma Theater. At the theater, I spotted neighbors Kathryn and Grant, who I have not seen since Halloween. We’ve discussed having dinner for a review and finally exchanged business cards. Grant called Amis, Marc Vetri’s new restaurant, and landed a reservation for 5:15.
After 10 months of anticipation, Marc Vetri opened Osteria on North Broad Street Feb. 15. Vetri has been hailed by the international culinary community since he opened his self-named restaurant in 1998. Gourmet magazine honored it as one of the top 50 restaurants in America. The James Beard Foundation also has applauded Vetri and his restaurant.