For a small town, Moorestown has earned some big bragging rights. In 2005, the Burlington County burb topped Money’s national list of Best Places to Live. In NJM’s 2013 biannual ranking, it was the top-ranked town in the South. Moorestown boasts excellent schools, historic homes, low crime and high achievement (the girls’ high school lacrosse team has won 13 state titles). So what’s missing?
Well, for dining out, Moorestown is no Collingswood. But last fall, acclaimed Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri opened his first New Jersey restaurant, Osteria, at the Moorestown Mall. After a wobbly start, it has hit its stride and is giving the town of 20,726 yet another asset to brag about.
Vetri, 47, a South Philly native, learned to cook from his grandmother, worked for Wolfgang Puck in California, and immersed himself in Italian food and culture in Bergamo, Italy, before opening Vetri in 1998. Since then he has written two cookbooks, started the Vetri Foundation to foster healthier lunches in Philadelphia schools and opened four other restaurants in area code 215—in order, Osteria, for pastas, pizzas and grilled meats; Amis, a trattoria; Alla Spina, an Italian gastropub; and Pizzeria Vetri.
For his sixth restaurant, Vetri told me in a phone interview after my visits, “we were looking to open another Osteria and had been thinking about the Main Line,” the wealthy suburban district just outside Philadelphia. What changed his mind was the planned renovation and upscale rebranding of the Moorestown Mall. The owners “showed me all the research, the demographics, and I liked the area, the vibe,” Vetri said. Referring to, among others, his former protégé Joey Baldino, now chef/owner of Zeppoli in Collingswood, and Josh Lawler, who recently opened the Farm & Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill, Vetri added, “Every chef and restaurateur I talked to who opened in New Jersey has really nice things to say.”
Osteria’s executive chef, Mike Deganis, 29, is a Vetri veteran, having worked at Osteria in Philadelphia for three years before becoming executive chef of Alla Spina. Taking the reins at Osteria Moorestown, Deganis told me, “was like coming back home.”
Moorestown had been open two weeks when I first ate there. Chicken liver rigatoni with caramelized onions, butter and sage—a rustic, woodsy signature at the original—was dull and heavy. A crudo of yellowtail beaded with pomegranate seeds tasted fishy, past its prime. The crust on a carpaccio pizza was thick and undercooked. My good-natured server became harried halfway through the meal. Food, drinks, clean silverware for each course—everything took too long to arrive.
A month later, service at the somewhat cramped, eight-seat counter facing the open kitchen was attentive. It was fun to watch the pizza chef roll out dough for my thin-crust Zucca pie, dress it with Hubbard squash purée, mozzarella, Marsala-soaked raisins, pine nuts and chives, and slip it into the oak-burning oven. It emerged crisp and delicious, just as it does at Osteria in Philly. A classic Margherita came with saucer-sized slices of mozzarella still bubbling from the oven over a bright, tasty tomato sauce and fresh, whole basil leaves. Pizzas (all 12 inches) run from $15 for the Margherita to $20 for the Parma (mozzarella, Fontina, arugula and a generous blanket of prosciutto di Parma).
The intricately detailed pastas were terrific. I nearly swooned over dainty tortelli filled with winter squash purée, eggs and Parmesan and glossed with a sage-butter sauce. Thyme replaced sage in a butter sauce for marvelous francobolli (postage stamp-sized ravioli) filled with Robiola cheese and garnished with meaty trumpet mushrooms. A marvelous lasagnetta (little lasagna) with layers of porcini béchamel and pheasant ragù yielded lusciously under a brown and crunchy crown. After these indulgences, a poached shrimp salad with shaved fennel and orange, grapefruit and Meyer lemon segments in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette made a fine refresher.
One of the best birds I’ve eaten in ages was Osteria’s grilled and roasted chicken. Grilled and roasted? Yes. The bird, brined 24 hours, then marinated in grapeseed oil, rosemary and thyme, is started on the grill to crisp the skin. It’s finished in the oven, gently enough to retain the moisture and herbal flourish of the marinade. Fingerling potatoes with rosemary dovetailed nicely with the other herbs, and sautéed puntarelle (an Italian chicory) provided pleasantly bitter counterpoint. A drizzle of bagna cauda, a garlic-and-anchovy sauce typically used for crudités, added a welcome third line of heat and salinity.
Deganis brines whole 20-pound pigs four days, then slow roasts them on a rotisserie for a platter of shoulder, ribs and crispy skin, frequently offered as a special. Veal breast, braised in milk for extra tenderness and stippled with soft, yielding fat, was as satisfying as the most finely marbled steak, and it paired aptly with celery root in two guises: sumptuous purée and crunchy slaw.
Speaking of finely marbled steak, Osteria’s bistecca Fiorentina came to the table as thick as that endangered species, the yellow pages. In Tuscany, Fiorentina is a gigantic porterhouse cut from Chianina beef, an indigenous Italian breed. Deganis uses a 49-day dry-aged Black Angus ribeye from Creekstone in Kansas. Not a true Fiorentina—just a really big, really delicious steak. My server presented the darkly crusted marvel for my approval, then whisked it back to the kitchen to be sliced. Each piece was rosy medium-rare, as requested. I appreciate the kitchen carving the steak; it made it easier to share and didn’t negatively affect the juiciness or temperature.
After that steak, my umami-overloaded taste buds needed a slap to attention. House-made cranberry-orange and floral Meyer lemon sorbetti did the trick. Osteria’s revisionist cannoli—almond torrone semifreddo piped into cocoa-flavored shells sprinkled with candied orange and lemon peel—improves on the status quo. After some growing pains, Osteria seems ready to do the same for Italian restaurants in South Jersey.Click here to leave a comment