Broccoli rabe on North Broad

Osteria's kitchen garden brings a bit of country wholesomeness to a stretch of faded urbanity.

Posted: May 24, 2009

Were it located in the genteel wilds of Birchrunville, Chester County, say, or Malvern, even, green farmlands lapping at the doorstep, Osteria's poignant gesture to fresh and local might not be that much worth the noting.

But for those who haven't had occasion to visit, let us set the scene: The casual sister to Marc Vetri's eponymous Vetri is just a handful of blocks north on Broad Street from Vine, though still south of Temple University, which is to say in a stretch of faded urbanity to which the noun revival cannot (yet) be honestly appended.

Approach it from the south and you are greeted by auto showrooms, vacant now, glass houses signifying nothing. Across North Broad? The hollow "Houseplant Warehouse," long-shuttered, wilted, and dark.

But if you are on foot, and peek though the fencing immediately beyond the heavy, stone flanks of Old Zion Lutheran Church (est. 1742), you spot an anomalous tableau - a jumble of trowels, claws, and watering apparatus visible through a lacy screen of peeling white birches.

This is the Osteria kitchen garden, Season II. And it is physical proof that, yes, broccoli rabe grows on North Broad; and that in raised beds in a graveled alley between the stained glass of Old Zion and the glassed-in extension of the restaurant's dining room so do boxes of reedy leeks and spring onions, and in planters, pine-scented lavender, dark Tuscan kale, and mint, accents and supplements to the kitchen's regular daily deliveries of herbs and produce.

The garden is not, on the other hand, very visible from the tables inside Osteria itself. So you may finish a meal of wood-grilled halibut with pale-green, fava bean crema, ramps, and house-made culatello, a Parma-style cold cut, and never know what lurks outside. Or have the slow-roasted lamb shoulder with artichokes, or Osteria's Margherita pizza, crisp and smoky, and be on your way oblivious that from the pavement itself, a garden has been coaxed.

But one evening, you may be informed of a special - the rich veal liver and pork terrine, for example, with pickled ramps, slivered radish, and house-grown spinach. And the words house-grown will trigger a question and perhaps an invitation out the back door to visit the unlikely, hidden spread - a skinny, 10-by-60-foot bonsai Ponderosa.

The guide, on a given day, may be the gardener-in-chief, chef Jeff Michaud, his trademark kerchief wrapped around his head. He will show you the baby spinach (mostly gone by now) and a smattering of red and yellow beets that may provide a special one night, the sweet Oxheart tomatoes, and in massive terra-cotta-colored pots, a few blueberry bushes, whose harvest is marked for a fruit salad.

The botanic brain behind the garden is Rob Ferber, who farms in New Jersey and tends to office work at Linvilla Orchards in Media (and, not incidentally, went to Abington High with Marc Vetri, Class of '85). He supplied seed catalogs - one called Seeds of Italy - developed the soil mix (compost, manure, and organic humus), and started some plants.

It is, as gardens are, a work in progress: The arugula that may show up on the Parma pizza will give way, and so too the picked-almost-to-order head lettuces - notably tender in a tricolore salad. Summer beans will soon climb the rusted trellis. Eggplant and peppers and more tomatoes (many destined for the smaller servings at Vetri itself) will take over the terrain of pots and planters and boxes.

It turns out, counterintuitively, that this patch of stone and pavement has benefits that were not self-evident. The stripe of a garden is neatly aligned east to west, ensuring long hours of sunlight. And the church's stone flanks act as a wind shield and retain the day's warmth, giving plants a head start in the spring; Ferber found broccoli rabe here growing more quickly than his field-grown stuff in Jersey.

It doesn't quite compare to the grounds of Michaud's wife Claudia's family in Bergamo, in Italy's north, edged as they are by chestnut forest and planted with trees bearing persimmons and pomegranates, pears and plums, and a trellis of kiwis, even, and stands of walnut and almond, trespassed upon by foraging wild boars that are easily detected and shot from the second-floor window for occasional dinners.

But then, exactly what on North Broad Street - or even in Birchrunville - quite does?

A correction: Last week's column on farm markets listed an incorrect Web address. It should have been www.thefoodtrust.org.


Osteria

640 N. Broad St.

215-763-0920

www.osteriaphilly.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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