First Bite: Osteria Radici

An Allentown newcomer by pedigreed restaurateurs charms.

The strands of spaghetti are thick and chewy, the pops of fiery-feisty Calabrian chili resolute, the underpinning of lemon persistent. Add to the dish a shake of sharp pecorino, slivers of musty-minty Thai basil and a topping of toasty crumbs, and you have a bowl of perfect pasta.

Spaghetti with lemon

This is the way pasta is meant to be, and the way it’s done at Osteria Radici, set far, far from the madding crowd in Allentown. Radici is like its hometown: small, sweet and uninterested in trend. It’s new this fall, the creation of chef Randy Forrester and Ally Forrester, who are putting this storefront BYO on the map with Italian fare that’s at once sincere and sophisticated, a tribute to the motherland and original, bold and subtle.

The Forresters walk their tightrope like pros, starting with a well-edited menu that manages to offer far-ranging flavors as it remains mindful of the seasons. The pair come with a pedigree—time spent at L’Empero and Fiamma in New York City, Ryland Inn and Harvest Moon Inn in New Jersey—but they don’t show off.

Take the chicken liver pizza bianca, a starter on the current menu: Crusty toasts are spread with buttery chicken liver mousse and dotted with a honey of a green grape emulsion that plays coyly off the liver. There are mini spears of fresh tarragon, warmed into twists of crisps. It’s a detail that unites and engages.

Chicken liver pizza bianca

It’s also a first rounder that could work as a table partner to the yellowfin tartara, a plush chop of top-notch fish mined with coriander-infused yogurt and served with a couple of small dollops of intense salsa verde. I say it could work, but for the bread plated with the tuna: The crumb is near flavorless, failing to stand up to the crust, and it doesn’t work solo let alone as a conduit for the raw tuna. I didn’t want to stop eating the tartara; I just wanted to spread it on slices of cucumber or something that better set off the fish’s freshness.

Tuna tartara

Kind of like little ginger-braised mushrooms set off the stout pockets of agnolotti. The only thing the ravioli-like squares needed to bewitch were natural juices and nuances of texture. It got ’em.

Agnolotti

Similarly, the tagliatelle plied with hunks of duck braised in marsala didn’t try to impress. Why should it? Pasta and long-stewed duck is a peasant dish, homey and proud. This one is textbook.

Tagliatelle with duck

I found Forrester’s entrees to be kindred spirits to his inimitable pastas. Dogfish isn’t a pretty fish, nor a popular one. He made it pretty, and just might make it popular by setting it atop chickpeas, boosting both with juices from pork shoulder and a generous ladleful of frothy avocado.

Dogfish

Pork rib mounted on baked polenta and strands of fennel isn’t exactly a common cut in restaurants. You’ll crave it after trying Radici’s rendition, which comes with the faintest hint of sweetness from golden raisins.

Pork rib

Lamb also is served bone-in to maximize its flavor. Here, green olives brined in honey are smashed and used as counterpoints to the tender, mildly gamey lamb and wedges of crisp-skinned potatoes. What’s that lurking in the background, unifying the plate? Anchovy. Brilliant.

Lamb

I look around the storefront, decorated in strokes of dark wood that frame a striking mirror-and-blackboard wall piece, hanging light fixtures and tables. Desserts arrive (a dense chocolate-hazelnut crema with crumbs of way-too-dry polenta cake; a rich zabaglione fortified with marsala and caramel and served with slices of green apple) and the vibe in the dining room is merry, with neighboring tables sharing happy thoughts on what diners here realize is a rare breed in the genre of Italian in New Jersey.

Zabaglione

And on top of it all? Service has been exemplary: informed and helpful; watchful, yet discreet.

Osteria Radici, thank you. You are my holiday gift.

Osteria Radici, 4 South Main Street in Allentown. Open for dinner daily except Sundays. BYO. 609-223-2395; osteriaradici.com.

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