Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

October 2009

Marc Vetri is a serious chef in Philadelphia who has a restaurant Vetri that is very difficult to get into because it’s so small (a mere 12 tables).  Since we were never able to score a reservation at Vetri, when Chef Vetri opened a new restaurant, Osteria, in the not-yet gentrified north central section of Philadelphia that promised lots more tables, we climbed in the car for a weekend in Philly.

I couldn’t remember the last time we had been to Philadelphia but the kids must have been small because I remember walking around and seeing Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin’s grave and walking into the structure that houses the Liberty Bell.  Now of course, Independence Hall is surrounded by protective iron barricades necessitating body and bag checking to get into the complex and there’s a line to get in to see the Liberty Bell.  Getting off the NJ Turnpike and driving towards the Ben Franklin Bridge was another big surprise.  What happened to all the seedy motels, the strip clubs, the liquor stores, the pawnshops that I remembered dotting the landscape on the way in?  Nearly all of the aforementioned eyesores had seemingly been bulldozed — a variety of big and small shopping malls, medium-priced chain hotels and the occasional free standing Crate & Barrel had replaced all of that.

Driving over the bridge it seems like the gentrification had extended into the city center.  I didn’t remember Philly looking well, so inviting, so bustling with lots of interesting looking stores and restaurants to boot. Imagine my surprise then when later that evening we hailed a cab to Osteria and ended up in a neighborhood rife with boarded up apartment buildings, ramshackle auto body shops and an occasional Chinese take-out joint complete with bullet-proof glass.  Landing at Osteria, I was surprised not only at the location but at the sheer size of the establishment. (Driving by later the next day, it appeared that Chef Vetri hadn’t just bought a space to house his new restaurant, he bought the whole building.)  Here’s my problem:  Osteria was so huge, so packed with people and servers rushing around that I thought, “no way is this going to be good.”

Busy or not, we were seated right away and menus were quickly brought.  Bread was put on the table along with some fruity olive oil and we ordered a bottle of wine.  The wine list while extensive and all-Italian, was a bit on the high end for my wallet.  Yes, they offered the usual over-priced Barolos and Barbarescos but even the simple Chiantis were marked up more than they should have been.  And what about the food?  I have to say, the food was surprisingly good given my skepticism when faced with cooking for so many people.  Some of the specials that day had already sold out (the roast pig) but Lynn and I ordered courses like we always do when we’re dining out.  We try to focus on things we can’t make at home or a spin on a dish that’s different.

At Osteria they make their own cold cuts.  That was a sure starter course that we split — a decent helping of house-made salami, mortadella and a prosciutto that they mentioned was from an outside purveyor.  Next up: a baked pheasant lasagnette (when was the last time I saw that on a menu: the answer was never) followed by penne with chicken livers.  Since we split everything, we each got a taste.  The penne with chicken livers and some sauteed onions was right on the mark; the pheasant lasagnette didn’t particularly taste like pheasant and the “noodles” had more of a crepe consistency than I would have liked.  For our “primo piatti” we both ordered the rabbit.  While it was decent, it paled in comparison to other rabbit dishes I’ve eaten. 

While we both thought about dessert but were veering on being a tad full, I persuaded Lynn that we would split a cheese plate for two reasons: I wanted another glass of wine and I love hard Italian cheeses.  Given a choice of five different cheeses (albeit small slices of each), we ate the cheese, drank the wine and looked around the room.  The space had emptied out considerably since we had initially arrived and the room became cozier, more romantic and infinitely more comfortable.  

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