At new restaurant, Moorestown's prohibition comes to an end

Bartender Dawn Taylor pours drinks for Arnie Bornstein and his wife, Bonnie, at the new Osteria at Moorestown Mall.
Bartender Dawn Taylor pours drinks for Arnie Bornstein and his wife, Bonnie, at the new Osteria at Moorestown Mall. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: November 23, 2013

Moorestown's long prohibition against the sale of alcohol came to an end this week, and crowds are celebrating at Moorestown Mall with wine, cocktails, pheasant lasagna, wild boar Bolognese, fire-grilled octopus pizza, and monkfish osso buco.

"We knew it was coming," said Bonnie Bornstein of Lumberton.

She meant more than the right to sip martinis or Barolo in a Moorestown restaurant for the first time in 98 years.

Bornstein was speaking of where she was sitting with her husband, Arnie: at Osteria, the celebrated restaurant created by Philadelphia chef and restaurant impresario Marc Vetri. A gastronomical landmark in the city since 2008, the South Jersey iteration opened for dinner Monday at the mall.

The mall's owner, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), is banking on Osteria, three more restaurants, a luxurious spa, and a 12-screen 3-D movie theater to transform it into the upscale destination it has long sought to be. A recent tour of the mall showed that at least 15 of its 90 shops were vacant.

"High-end restaurants extend the amount of time people spend on the property and draw from a wider place in the marketplace," said Joe Aristone, PREIT's senior vice president for leasing.

As such, those restaurants now rival department stores as the anchors that draw customers - and dollars.

"People will go out of their way to go to a Marc Vetri restaurant," he said, which is why PREIT reached out to the restaurateur, who has five properties in Philadelphia. "It opens a wider audience to the property."

Also, Aristone said, people who visit a mall to dine typically end up buying more at stores than do those who are simply shoppers. Diners tend to be less rushed and more relaxed, and "spend more time and money."

A trattoria-style Italian restaurant serving exotic pizzas and entrées such as swordfish spiedini and pork ribs caseuola, Osteria will be joined in spring by Distrito, a take on Iron Chef Jose Garces' acclaimed Mexican-style cantina in West Philadelphia.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, a North Carolina chain of steakhouses, expects to open the third restaurant with a liquor license at the mall early next year.

PREIT is seeking a fourth licensed restaurant, Aristone said, but declined to name the candidates. The 56,000-square-foot Regal Moorestown Mall Stadium 12 theater is due to open mid-December, he said, and the Rizzieri Spa is scheduled to move in next fall.

The Bornsteins, who said Moorestown "has enough BYOBs," said they look forward to a transformed mall and were "delighted" by the arrival of Osteria.

"We were familiar with its reputation," said Arnie, whose thumb and forefingers grasped a glass stem rising to an icy, limpid liquid as they waited to start dinner.

"It's great for the region," he said, "when the suburbs can offer this level of quality."

It was about 7 p.m. The Bornsteins were at Osteria's long granite bar, a quail-egg's throw from the bustling, open, and brightly lighted kitchen. There, a dozen cooks and chefs were slicing, flame-grilling, flipping, sautéing, shouting, and laughing.

"Three pigs," called out a waiter who had just dashed in from a dining room.

"Three pigs," replied chef de cuisine Mike Deganis. He reached down for three wrapped pieces of pork, cut from a pair of suckling pigs that had spent the afternoon turning on spits over a wood fire.

Back to the right was Brad Spence, executive chef of another Vetri family restaurant, Amis. Facing in was Jeff Michaud, executive chef of the Philadelphia Osteria and a Vetri partner.

And here on the left, punching down dough and sprinkling beef carpaccio, parma ham, charred octopus, and roasted squash onto 14-inch pizzas, was Vetri himself.

"We're thrilled to be here," he said, pausing to crack an egg (with one hand) onto the pizza lombarda he had just slid out of a glowing brick oven. "We'd been so busy getting ready, I forgot until this week we're the first liquor license here since - when? The 1920s?"

In fact, Moorestown had been dry since 1915. But in 2011, voters by a ratio of 3-2 approved a referendum question authorizing the sale of four restaurant liquor licenses, at $1 million each, to attract restaurants to the struggling mall.

Although anchored by Sears, Boscov's, Macy's, and Lord & Taylor, many of the mall's smaller shops are empty or downscale. Patrons can be few.

PREIT also owns the thriving Cherry Hill Mall three miles away on Route 38.

Coming to the New Jersey suburbs is a leap, too, for Vetri, whose 5,000-square-foot Moorestown Osteria is the first of his restaurants to be exported outside Philadelphia.

The menu, he said, was "very similar" to his restaurant on North Broad Street.

But the Moorestown restaurant will make all its own dishes, according to manager Martin Cugine, including the dried sausage, and desserts like Tuesday's spicy pumpkin tiramisu. "Everything's made from scratch," he said.

Osteria is serving only dinner this week, starting at 5. Starting next week, it will serve both lunch and dinner.

First impressions from diners were uniformly positive Tuesday night.

"It was beyond our expectations," said Mount Laurel resident Erin Murphy, 29, who "didn't expect the chef's counter" that allows diners to sit facing the kitchen. "It's entertainment with dinner," she said.

Her mother, Lynne Murphy, 59, also liked the quieter, brick-walled dining rooms. "It's like two different neighborhoods," she said.

But a father and daughter who pronounced the cuisine "really good" said they found the décor too spare, and the pulsing, piped-in music "noisy."

Susan Maley of Bordentown and Jackie Majkowski of Mount Laurel had only positives. The wild boar Bolognese was "fabulous," said Majkowski, and Maley described her monkfish osso bucco as "light, rich, and very butter. Four stars."

"We've been waiting a long time for a city restaurant in this town," said Majkowski. "And this is 10 minutes away."


Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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