I haven’t been this excited about a restaurant in a long time.
Joe and I heard some good things about Cobre, a Puerto Rican-Mexican hybrid that opened recently on a newly gentrifying stretch of North Broad here in Philly. We trudged north to find it, but when we got there, the place was empty. At nine o’clock on a Friday night. Empty! That scared us, so we backtracked a few blocks south to Osteria, about which we had heard even better things. (In fact, it was featured in a Philadelphia Weekly article on “The Rebirth of North Broad.”) It was a bit pricy for our budget, but Joe just got a raise and we were celebrating, so we decided to give it a shot.
We were a little worried about getting in- we were both in jeans, and we were turning up without a reservation on a Friday night. I half expected to be sneered at and shown the door. Instead, we got love. Seriously, they were wonderful. We were immediately shown to a seat at the bar, overlooking the pizza oven and rotisserie, and the hostess even apologized for the lack of a table. There are two dining rooms, and the one in which we were seated was decorated simply, with brick walls, brushed concrete floors, wooden furniture, and warm lighting that made the whole place feel congenial.
It took a few minutes to get our menus, but after that the service was a well-oiled machine. In fact, our waiter was one of the highlights of our experience. He was clearly a serious foodie and took pride in the dishes he was serving. His face lit up when I asked about the rabbit casalinga with pancetta, sage, brown butter and soft polenta– he explained that the recipe came from the chef’s mother in Italy, and that the polenta was cooked in the embers of the open fire blazing in front of us (under the rotisserie). He had thoughtful answers to our questions, and asked our opinions on the dishes. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t catch his name, but he really made the experience for us.
But you want to know about the food. Osteria has an extensive wine list, which we barely looked at because we were too busy celebrating its small but excellent Belgian beer selection. I got a McChouffe.
From the antipasti menu, we split a salad of veal flank steak, snow peas, pancetta and red cabbage. (I don’t see it on the menu currently posted online, though.) It was all bathed (not drowned) in olive oil and garlic, with a light crunchy texture that balanced the richness of the meats. The portions are reasonable– not tiny, but not the ridiculous megaplates you see at too many restaurants.
Joe had eaten a large lunch, not knowing we were going to have such an amazing dinner, so he decided to keep it light and eat the salad and one dish from the primi section of the menu. He got a dish of translucent pork ravioli in a bright green basil sauce. It was light and pretty, and each small ravioli gave a gratifying burst of juice and flavor.
Finally, my rabbit. It must have been about a quarter of a rabbit, done to moist perfection, with dark, almost-crispy skin and little chunks of pancetta to add even more depth and richness to the flavor. The polenta was a bit plain, but satisfying. I’d ordered the dish thinking that it was a bit out of season; instead it was much lighter than I expected, not a winter dish at all.
And then there was dessert. We ordered shots of espresso at the recommendation of our waiter, who clearly takes his coffee every bit as seriously as his food, and were not disappointed. I’m picky about espresso– places like Starbucks tend to serve it burnt, but this was flavorful, with an unexpected bit of fruity sweetness. (Do I sound like a wine snob? OK, I do, but if you have a shot of this stuff, you’ll be singing the same tune.)
I had the chocolate flan with pistachio gelato. As the waiter warned us, it’s not technically a flan– it’s actually a flan-shaped cake with molten chocolate on the inside. It was rich and delicious, and not overly sweet. The gelato was forgettable, without much pistachio flavor.
Joe’s dessert, though, floored us. It was a puff pastry tart filled with mascarpone cheese and toppped with figs cooked in balsamic vinegar and rosemary. Joe doesn’t actually like figs very much, but he’d had such a delicious, thoughtfully prepared meal by that point that he decided to trust the chef. Good move. It was rich and light at the same time, and the balsamic-rosemary combination created a pine-y, fresh flavor that I’ve never quite experienced before. It was absolutely wonderful.
We were struck by a couple of things. First, the menu is very friendly to celiacs and people with food allergies. The kind of Northern Italian cuisine that Mark Vetri and Jeff Benjamin are preparing here uses polenta and potatoes much more than pasta, and preparations are kept relatively simple. The use of fresh, local ingredients also means less worries about the ‘stealth ingredients’ that show up so often in processed food. The kind of personal attention we received without even making a reservation (!) leads me to believe that any diner who called ahead and asked about a dietary issue would be accommodated and made to feel welcome.
Second, we had some questions when we arrived about the restaurant’s gentrification of the neighborhood. It’s an Italian restaurant with a mostly white clientele and high (for Philly) prices that’s located in an African-American neighborhood (and is probably raising that neighborhood’s rents). I’m not going to get into the politics of gentrification here (that’s for the comments!)– but I was pleased to note that both the hostess and the manager were Black, a rare move in Philly, where the front of house and back of house are usually the last frontier of segregation. I hope other restauranteurs will take note and give some people of color leadership positions in the front of the house, for a change!
The final word? Osteria is a foodie’s restaurant. It’s unpretentious, relaxed, and totally obsessed with the quality of its food. Everyone we interacted with– the manager, the waiter, the cooks we observed from the bar– seemed deeply invested in serving us really good food. And, most important, it works– the food is delicious, surprisingly healthy, and soul-satisfying. The prices are steep (knock $5 off just about everything, and I’d come a lot more regularly), but the quality of the ingredients, the preparations and the service are high enough to make it worthwhile. Go.
[where: 640 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130]