Approaching Osteria, one might think they’ve gone too far on North Broad Street, as the painfully quiet block appears to be home to several industrial looking buildings, a cathedral-sized stone church, and scattered automotive parts shops. When you stumble upon the restaurant though, you’ll know you’ve found what you were looking for.
A sort of euphoria takes over upon entering the wrought iron door of Osteria. The first signs of service are noted immediately as a professionally dressed hostess greets you with a smile. The glowing interior of the restaurant dominates the senses and it is impossible to prevent your eyes from wandering around the room. Sensational lighting casts a brilliant shine on the open kitchen to the right of the room where six or seven chefs hustle about, preparing vegetables, pizza plates and entrees. Diners are scattered about on square tables for two and four while a wait staff dressed in formal black and white attire weaves in and out of the table matrix filling water glasses, opening wine bottles and clearing plates. The service is like clockwork.
Should the restaurant be at capacity when you arrive, you’ll be graciously lead to the back of the room where a full bar awaits. During your journey, you’ll begin to notice the intricate details that have been incorporated into the space. A collection of wine corks lines the lower half of the walls while the upper half is made of wooden shipping crates that perhaps held wine or cheeses imported from Italy. The menus along the bar are lined in corkboard and the bread baskets on the tables are made of hollowed logs of wood, warming the mood.
The wine list is lengthy and chosen well with over 100 variations from the Northern and Southern regions of Italy. Guests can order by the glass or bottle and bartenders are happy to make recommendations based on your preference, another sign that the staff has been attentively trained.
According to their history, owners Marc Vetri, Jeff Mishaud, and Jeff Benjamin have all spent a significant amount of time in Italy during their careers, both cooking and traveling. Benjamin brings the refined knowledge of Italian wines to the group, while Vetri brings his veteran skills in the kitchen where he has been creating award-winning dishes and dining experiences for years. Mishaud joined Vetri at his original, self-titled establishment initially working as the sous chef. In February of 2007, the three joined forces to create Osteria, enlivening their vision of what a traditional Italian kitchen should be: a warm, rustic establishment offering thin crust pizzas, homemade pastas, and wood-grilled meat and seafood dishes.
However, if you were expecting the selection you might find in a typical Philadelphia Italian joint, you may be in for a bit of a surprise. Aside from their obvious affinity for the Italian language, you’ll find that the owners of Osteria chose highly original menu items. You’ll see things like Bucatini with Broccoli, Bottarga and Pecorino Cheese, and “Ciareghi” Cotechino Sausage with Soft Polenta and a Sunny-Side Up Egg. Initially these foreign dishes can be a bit intimidating, but this is where the wait staff comes in to ease any confusion that might be brewing at his or her table. Each item has its own story, which the server will happily tell.
For starters, our group sampled the Vegetable Antipasto, a colorful combination of taste and texture. The dish was served on a wooden cutting board and consisted of a small sampling of tender red peppers dripping in olive oil, artichokes, field greens, sharp cheeses and tofu. In addition to the veggie dish, we tried the Wood Grilled Octopus, which came recommended by Paul our waiter. This was a definite highlight of the meal. Tart and smoky with a side of cubed potato sticks, this dish brought out the flavor of the wood grill with a tender crisp – a delightful appetizer for two.
As the meal progressed, we were offered a bottle of wine – the Torre Quarto, “Don Marcello” from Puglia. Just as graceful as his partnering waiter, the wine steward opened the bottle at the table and poured a sample into an elegant piece of stemware. After gaining our approval, he removed all of our glasses from the table and returned with a new, freshly prepped set of glasses. This teamwork aspect as it pertains to the wait staff was consistent throughout the meal. One server would clear your plate, another would reset the table, and another would handle the wine glasses. All in all, there were at least five members of the staff attending to our table at any given time, which is something you don’t find often in Philadelphia.
Moving on to the Primi, or first course in Italian, we selected the Pheasant Lasagnetta (one of the easier listings to translate) and the Candele with Wild Boar Bolognese. The Lasagnette was true to title: a smaller portion of lasagna (the -ette suffix on Italian words means “small or little”) on a tiny plate with a bubbling hot pheasant center. This dish had a familiar homey taste to it with hints of cheese and mushroom under a lightly crisped surface. There was no clear separation between the pheasant and the more common taste of a ground beef based dish, but the result was savory nonetheless. The Candele was the favorite of the primi group. These were long, skinny hollow “candles” of pasta dripping in a tender brown sauce made of wild boar. Again, this taste was not a distinguished one, but it left a lasting warmth within, as pastas should.
Taking a break from the meal, a walk around the space uncovered a private room behind the kitchen which is referred to as the Wine Room. With a classic view of the wine cellar, this space can hold up to 45 people for a company function, family celebration, or wine tasting event. On the other end of the restaurant, guests can dine in a greenhouse type room with an “outdoor” feel. This room also plays host to private functions, with glass windows rising up to the ceilings from short exposed brick walls. This warm and rustic space can hold up to 75 people.
No review is complete without taking a peek at the restrooms, and the two words “spotless and private” can describe this ever important part of a dining experience. Each room had a full door with walls on either side, and the marble sink complete with a rustic copper faucet looked as though it belonged in an old Tuscan Villa – just the feel the owners were going for when they opened Osteria.
Back at the table, we’re on to the Secondi: Veal Short Ribs and Wild Striped Bass. Both were very well received at the table. The presentation of these dishes was impeccable. The short ribs were covered in tender heirloom carrots with a topping of parsnip puree. Although only a small portion of the ribs was edible meat (as opposed to fat), the taste and consistency of the veal was excellent – tender and light with a touch of sweetness. Next, the Striped Bass, consisting of buttery thin pieces of grilled fish, fell off the bone into a luscious artichoke cream sauce. We preferred the bass to the veal due to the fact that it was one hundred percent edible and seemed to be a better compliment to the pasta dishes we’d just eaten.
A separate menu was presented for dessert, and we indulged in a creamy mixed gelato of vanilla and lemon topped with a thin round sugar cookie with scalloped edges. Also homemade, each bite of this rich and creamy delight slowly dissolved into a sugary yawn of complete satisfaction. There could have been no better ending to our meal as four spoons quickly cleaned the small dish meant for one.
Exiting the restaurant there is a sign on the wall that reads, “Uno non puo pensare bene, amare bene, dormire bene, se non ha mangiate bene.” This translates, “One who cannot think well, love well, or sleep well has not eaten well.” After our inaugural meal at Osteria, we will be sleeping like babies tonight.