(Grand Rapids, MI) — Even though we no longer live in Grand Rapids, we still keep up with the city’s ebb and flow, relying on our friends to let us know when there’s a new establishment that might pique our interest. So it is with Osteria Rossa, a freshly-opened Italian restaurant downtown. Claiming the “Warmth of the Mitten, Soul of the Boot” it sounds like the perfect place to meet some close acquaintances for dinner...
There’s something so fun about getting a group of familiar folks together at a communal table, trusting one another to order certain dishes or wines and sharing all of it over laughter and gentle conversation. I’m excited about tonight because it’s a beautiful evening, we’re being joined by friends I’ve not seen in many months, and the enticing scent of wood fired pizza is wafting from the wide-flung entrance. Our compatriots arrive almost simultaneously, disbursing hugs and smiles with generosity. We go in, where our table is being assembled. Juliet and I strategically place ourselves at either end, where we can squeeze the most out of our limited time with the group.
The litany of orders commences with the friendly and very efficient waitress deferring to me. Thankfully, I have JoJo by my side; we make a great team when it comes to balancing the selections. I immediately order the Octopus starter (and not a moment too soon; there is only one left!) while JoJo wisely commands one of each Crostini, plus Fresh Mozzarella. The Field and Fire bread is suitably sturdy, if not a skooch too toasted for my taste, topped with various ingredients: roasted mushroom; whipped baccala; spring pea-ricotta; caponata; and pork-cherry mostarda. I love the grainy texture and sweet pop of the pea-ricotta, and the caponata is a riot of veggies that almost make you consider giving up meat. Almost. I bypass the other varieties, and spare only a bite of the creamy, firm mozz—savoring the balsamic drizzle and pickled onions—but right now I only have eye-teeth for my old, tentacled lover. Amid white beans, Calabrian chili oil, lemon conserva, arugula, and pickled fennel, the octopus is properly firm yet tender to chew. The scorched suckers crackle between my teeth satisfyingly. I barely register the fact there’s another round of salads and a meatball dish? More for them, I suppose...and more of this exquisite cephalopod for me.
Someone gets the bright idea to do a pizza course. Who am I to argue? We get a traditional Margherita, a very non-traditional Apple, the flesh-laden Carne, and the vegetarian delight Fungi. The crust on each is fire-singed and yeasty, soulful. Although I’m not ecstatic about taleggio cheese, I have to admit it’s well-paired with roasted apple, pine nuts, pickled red onions, and arugula. My slice of the Carne is quite good as well, with tangy tomato sauce and salty pork sausage playing off one another. The pepperoni is crispier than I care for, though. I eyeball the other two pies, but I’m trying to pace myself.
We’re already deep into a second bottle of red wine (Lamuri, I believe) and it’s decided we will now try sides. Small skillets begin to appear from the kitchen. I’m too timid to try the Wood Roasted Mushrooms but everyone else seems to dig them. Roasted Root vegetables are my favorite, a sweet helping of turnips, carrots, and parsnips sprinkled with warm walnuts. Roasted Potatoes are buttery and delicious, parsley like confetti on top with salt, pepper, and parmesan. I’m totally in love with the Polenta, a whipped hillock with ground corn and cream, slivers of parmesan on top. There’s another medley of tomatoes, asparagus, and zucchini but I somehow miss a bite.
Finally, it’s time to order our mains. Thanks to a friend who works at another restaurant in town, I know exactly what to order: Agnolotti. Thick tubes of rolled pasta, like cream-colored islands in a lagoon of guanciale broth, encase bacon-polenta while Roman artichokes, asparagus, and pale pea shoots lounge languidly atop. One bite transports me back to Rome, where a few quality ingredients in the talented hands of a mindful chef can transmit a state of mind, a point-of-view. I take my time with the remainder. For once, I am probably not the first one done with his meal.
Dessert is out of the question, though I do crave a double espresso to “fill in the cracks”. Contentedly, I sip the hot brew and reflect on our repast. In olden days, I’ve been reluctant to participate in pass-the-plate sharing dinners. But tonight I feel positively worldly after tasting here and there, rather than hunkering over my food like a caveman with a hunk of wooly mammoth. Our eclectic mix of friends has a lot to do with that, but Osteria Rossa contributes its fair share to that sense of comradery, that familiarity, that love.
We always look forward to dinner with friends in Grand Rapids and tonight we are lucky to have several join us at Osteria Rossa. In the interest of full disclosure, we absolutely adore The Divine Miss H, a server and friend who works at Osteria Rossa. In fact, before meeting up with our large dinner group, we grab a quick glass of bubbles with her at the Downtown Market to get a few fab tips on the house specialities.
Each couple in our group of eight arrives within minutes of each other. Over the course of three hours, we essentially order 85% of the menu. Jeremy and I position ourselves at each end of the table to that we can “divide and conquer”; it’s hard when we only get to see our pals a few times a year now instead of a few times a month. This seems like a good way to catch up with everyone so we can share stories during our 80 mile drive home tonight.
Most of the ordering happens at Jeremy’s end of the table and I’m only hearing snatches and bits of what’s being ordered. In no time, bottles of wine are being poured and platters of food descend on the table. We have one of each Crostini variety: Roasted Mushroom, Whipped Baccala (dried salt cod), Spring-Pea Ricotta, Caponata, and Pork-Cherry Mostarda. Our server wisely brings extra servings of toasted bread before we even dig in. The only spread I don’t try is the ricotta with spring peas, given my aversion to anything with peas in it. The baccala is creamy and reminds me of the brandade I devoured in Paris. The roasted mushroom is garlicky while the caponata is tangy, like sweet-n-sour eggplant. My favorite is the mostarda with it’s shredded pork, sweet cherries, and pucker-inducing mustard overtones.
More starters arrive...the Octopus, cooked to perfection and served with pickled fennel, white beans, arugula, and a chile oil; tender and comforting Meatballs with tomato sauce, Parm and ricotta salata; unexpectedly chewy and firm housemade Fresh Mozzarella with roasted peppers and pickled red onion; and the Farm Salad with bacon, goat cheese, a fried egg and apple-maple vinaigrette. For me the salad is the stand-out. When it comes back around the table, I don’t hesitate to grab the remaining romaine and radicchio leaves.
Someone’s ordered four pizzas for the table to share! The Funghi with roasted mushrooms, goat cheese and truffle oil is as lush and decadent as it sounds. A scattering of pickled fennel helps cut the richness. The Apple pizza has taleggio cheese (one of my faves), pine nuts, and roasted apple slices. It’s divine and again...really lux. I end up grabbing a very small piece of the Carne with pepperoni, sausage, and caramelized onions. The tomato sauce is so fresh and bright; I want to gobble it all up, but I can’t and I even pass on a slice of the Margherita pie as well. It’s just all too much.
They have a whitefish special with apples I’m considering for dinner when one of the servers brings it to the table explaining “the kitchen accidentally made an extra serving of this and we thought you all might want to try it.” The dish is amazing, with two large planks of lightly battered whitefish and small cubes of apple and parsnip. I would never think to pair apples with fish. As I pass the dish to be shared by the table, I’m tempted to order another one as my dinner.
But as usual, I cave to porcine pleasures and order up the highly recommended Porchetta, a sausage stuffed cut of pork belly. I know I’ve been kvetching about how rich everything is, but sausage-stuffed pork belly? Come on, can you blame me? The presentation is absolutely gorgeous with two lovely large discs of pork perched atop a mound of creamy polenta, pickled cipollini onions, cutiepie little patty pans and zucchini, and a generous schmear of Michigan ramp salsa verde. The salt and the fat of the meat with the velvety polenta and the verdant ramp salsa is the best bite of the night for me. And I take about 20 more before I have to put the fork and knife down.
But wait, there’s one of every veggie side to try—Roasted Root Vegetables, Sauteed Rapini, Roasted Potatoes, Polenta, and Wood-Roasted Mushrooms. I try a few mushies and they’re grand. But I’m too full and can’t eat another bite. I sip my wine and slowly slip into a food coma while a few brave folks soldier through gelato.