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Palate Review: Osteria

by Nancy Donovan: Photo by Phil Gray

Welcome to Town

400 Route 38
(856) 316-4427
4 ½ forks

My first trip to Osteria Moorestown was just two days after it first opened its doors. With the smell of paint still in the air, I grabbed a seat at the bar and watched the seats around me slowly fill up with diners as curious as myself about this new restaurant with an already-famous name.

As chef Marc Vetri himself slung pizzas in the open kitchen behind me, with his longtime partners Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence working the pass, I got caught up in a conversation with a neighboring couple. The pair had canceled their birthday dinner plans at the flagship Osteria on Philadelphia’s Broad Street to eat here, at the Moorestown Mall.

It’s an idea that would have been laughable just three years ago. Not just that people would skip a night out in the city for a South Jersey restaurant that neighbors a nail salon and skateboard shop, but that a chef with the national, no, international fame of Marc Vetri would even dare to consider this quiet little Burlington County shopping mall while building his empire. But thanks to a grassroots campaign to bring liquor to Moorestown back in 2011, PREIT and the Moorestown Mall became the proud owners of four liquor licenses.

The first license went to Vetri, who backed the campaign with the promise of bringing culinary life to the dying mall with his James Beard-award winning Italian cuisine. He opened the doors on the 142-seat Osteria in November of 2013, his first eatery outside of Philadelphia, with a menu fairly similar to his Broad Street location.

Osteria fills the space of a long-forgotten mall property, where a seemingly endless list of furniture stores would come and go. It’s nice to see a permanent new front, simple but elegant with an open space that will soon seat more outdoor guests when the weather is right. Inside you’ll find two dimly lit dining rooms, each packed to the limit with tables and buzzing with diners, sommeliers and waiters who dodged around the minimal space with skill. Many of the servers are Vetri alumni, crossing the bridge to the new space. On this particular winter night, guests waited outside the door for a table, straining their necks to see the kitchen as they whispered “Is he here?”

Vetri may have been in Philadelphia, but his team of chefs are some of the best in the Delaware Valley, cooking up his rustic Italian concepts, including house-made pastas and house-cured meats and charcuteries. Then there’s the wood-fired pizzas coming out of their custom pizza oven, cooked quick at high heat to produce crust that’s chewy but still crispy. The Lombarda pie, which pairs their cotechino sausage with bitto and mozzarella cheeses, came with an oven-baked egg, which added an extra creaminess that paired perfectly with the salty sausage.

Then there is Osteria’s octopus dishes, like the polpo pizza which puts the tender meat atop a red pie and adds a punch of heat with red chili flakes. The meat gets a more refined treatment in an appetizer of wood-grilled octopus, plated with fresh arugula and potatoes that have been diced and cooked in lemon. The octopus, paired with a slightly overwhelming burst of citrus and the peppery kick from the arugula, was a simply harmonious plate.

And while the rusticity of the octopus was what really appealed to me, there is an unexpected grace in their other dishes. Like the rabiola francobolli, a truly beautiful primi of miniature, “postage stamp” raviolis. The translucent pasta held just a touch of filling, tossed in a light cream sauce with fresh thyme and soft, buttery trumpet mushrooms. They were so delicate, a memorable transition from appetizer to entrée.

Grace showed through again in the swordfish spiedini, an entrée that was almost too beautiful to eat. Chunks of smoky grilled fish were nestled on a bed of puréed cauliflower, then dressed with purple, white and yellow cauliflower pieces. It was hard to believe that such a complex dish bursting with so many different flavors and textures had just two ingredients to its name.

The duck liver alla fiorentina appetizer could have used some of that refinement. Instead of a smooth and creamy pâté, we received a gritty blend that was rather one-note, topped with an egg and served with oversized slices of toasted bread. And while the casueola entrée featured meaty ribs and black-pepper sausage bursting with flavor, the polenta didn’t quite come together. I would have liked something a little smoother rather than the loose and gritty portion that was served.

The drink list, and a wine list of more than 100 bottles monitored by a full-time sommelier (that’s right, a sommelier at the Moorestown Mall), added a finishing touch to what was clearly a well-devised menu. But I would be remiss if I neglected their dessert menu, specifically the best dessert I’ve ever tasted, and one of my favorite dishes in South Jersey: the polenta budino. Creamy sweet polenta sits in a coffee cup, topped with a chocolaty gianduja mousse and candied hazelnuts. The subtle sweetness melts in your mouth, before everything wakes up thanks to the crunch of hazelnuts. I’ve returned to Osteria more than once, and will not leave without a cup of this budino.

As a South Jersey lifer, I’m thankful for Osteria, and for Vetri’s fearless jump into the Moorestown Mall. Vetri’s team has brought some revolutionary Italian foods to an up-and-coming area that is ready and hungry. And judging by the dishes that are coming out of the open kitchen in droves, the best is yet to come.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 12 March, 2014).
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