[ review ]
When I hit the wall at Alla Spina, it was made of pork parts and pastry dough. The pig pot pie at Marc Vetri's latest restaurant, a graffitied birreria in a former garage on North Broad Street, is something to behold. And behold was really all I could do; what I'd consumed already had turned my stomach into Citizens Bank Park during interleague play. Standing room only, perhaps able to squeeze in a spear of asparagus.
However upscaled or Italianized, pig pot pies, poutine and BLTs are not the usual dominion of la Famiglia di Vetri. But that's exactly what's emerging from the open kitchen at Alla Spina, where the cooks hoot like hillbillies on the Fourth of July when a customer purchases a $10 "Ode to the Publican," aka a six-pack for the back of the house. Vetri, no dummy, knows he's out of his proverbial comfort zone. "We had to work harder on the food and be a lot more creative," he says. "The french fries alone took a month. We all gained a little weight."
Preach. My scale wasn't too happy with me, either, after that early pass at Alla Spina. Though the forkful of pig pie I managed was delicious, I found most of the food heavy, salty and indulgent — a klutzy, deep-fried grope at fatty-chic. This was in its first few weeks of opening and I was eating at Alla Spina for fun, not for work; I mention it only to illustrate how different the experience was a month later.
But first, the constants: impeccably poised service from the staff, whose blue-and-orange uniforms shouldn't be held against them; staggering crowds, especially at the 20-seat, beer-bottle-terrazzo bar, where thirsty standers treat Alla Spina like Chickie's & Pete's, wedging between barstools and waving money like rappers at a strip club; and weird, wonderful Italian beers. Baladin and Del Borgo already a household name in your crib? Beverage director Steve Wildy sees your Italian-craft ennui and raises you Loverbeer (Piedmonte), Collesi (Marche), Piccoli (Liguria) and more. Alla Spina is a fantastic place to drink — unless you like Negronis, which are on tap and as syrupy as Aunt Jemima.
The Red Velvet is a better cocktail, an inventive blend of Monk's sour red, the bittersweet Italian orange soda Chinotto and creme de violette. It drank like an aperitif, whetting the appetite for curls of smoky lamb speck, big baked oysters and other edible clues that 26-year-old chef Damon Menapace, formerly Jeff Michaud's executive sous at Osteria, and his kitchen crew had discovered a newfound groove. And while the menu still feels a bit like it's pandering to a younger breed of Vetri customer, at least most everything I ate was executed with same sharpness and finesse you'd expect from Vetri, Osteria and Amis.
Those oysters, for example. Giant Chincoteagues, their shells were boats covered in tarps of bubbling Parmigiano. The soft, creamy oyster meats sloshed about beneath each veil of cheese, their natural liquor mingling with lemon-and-parsley butter. Do they make these in Italy, where the combo of seafood and cheese is verboten? I'd guess no, though I'm not holding that against Vetri. Alla Spina is his and partners Jeff Benjamin and Michaud's interpretation of the birreria, one that includes soft pretzels and fried chicken alongside snacks like schisola, soft polenta spheres with molten Taleggio cores.
"We wanted to do gastropub-style food, but always with the sense of Italy," Vetri says. "We said, 'Gastropubs have hot dogs, let's make one with mortadella. Let's make poutine, but with a Bolognese sauce and mozzarella curds. Deviled eggs, but with porcini cream.'"
Smothered with the promised Bolognese (made with guinea hen), that poutine would make even the most traditional Quebec lumberjack's knees buckle, and Vetri was not kidding about the fries. Cutting the canola fryer oil with rendered beef fat (a la the Dandelion) gave the golden-brown batons a round, satisfying meatiness. It's a heart-stopping quartet, this amalgam of potatoes, gravy, cheese and tallow, but Alla Spina shows mercy with its sensible portions and newer section of vegetables, "overlooked at the beginning," according to Menapace and born of Vetri's dissatisfaction with the early menu's kale salad.
"My wife and I went in for dinner, and the salad just wasn't working," he says. "So we came up with five or six vegetable dishes to replace it, and we said, 'Why don't we just stick them all on?'"
The quenching, vinegary cucumber salad couldn't be simpler, just thick-cut planks of cuke, red-wine vinaigrette, mint, parsley, chili flakes and Fresno peppers. The cukes cleared the way for a pair of homey pastas, both baked "al forno" and both layered and stuffed with stuff: ricotta, fontina, parm, prosciutto cotto, spinach and bechamel in the feathery crespelle; pork, beef, pancetta, prosciutto-and-chicken-liver bolognese, bechamel and parm in the jade spinach lasagna. I dare you to not pick at the pasta's crusty, curled black corners with your fingers.
Though Menapace's kitchen is clearly clicking, it wasn't without fault. The schisola lacked oomph, while the speck's horseradish accessories (a compound butter, plus fresh-grated) lacked sharpness. Cured with garlic and rosemary but otherwise naked, the lamb ribs got upstaged by their bed of fat, creamy lima beans doused in vinegar. Overwhelmingly, though, Alla Spina delivered a positive down to the desserts, a chic meringue/semifreddo setup pistachio fans will freak for and a fun, tart raspberry lambic "affogato" done with fior di latte soft-serve.
Not bad for M.V.'s fourth effort — also his fourth best. Without question, Alla Spina is the worst Vetri restaurant. Which is to say, still way better than most in town.
Alla Spina | 1410 Mount Vernon St., 215-600-0017, allaspinaphilly.com. Open Sun.-Thu., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Snacks, appetizers and salumi, $4-$18; pasta, $14-$16; panini, $8-$14; entrées, $10-$20; desserts, $8-$10.