A good meal is alchemy: the best company with fantastic food in the right atmosphere at the right time and in the right place. If all these things align like an auspicious arrangement of celestial bodies, you’re in for something that is just as cosmically wonderful — an experience that adds some flavor to life, one that makes you smile and feel impossibly warm in a center you didn’t know you had, let alone one that could be kindled or needed to be.
It has to do with the feeling, a stirring I sometimes get which implores me to venture out if for no other reason than to quell its restlessness. This is what breaking the “bubble” means (take note, young whippersnappers): recognizing and honoring the part that wants to be released in order to see new sights, smell new smells and run into unexpected encounters. There’s a bit of you that is not a student. Allow it to flourish and have its own time — your student half with the adult-sounding voice will also thank you.
So why go out to eat, and more specifically, why go to Barbuzzo — a restaurant in Center City clad in the bistro style and specializing in Mediterranean cuisine — of all places? Well, as far as catering to every part of your individual is concerned, go anywhere. Chinatown, Fairmount Park, the Italian Market, the Barnes, the Brandywine River Valley and an unfathomable number of other destinations, both common and obscure, will yield a surfeit of adventure. Philadelphia is one of the greatest cities in the world, and its surrounding environs (more on those in the future) are just as exciting.
But if you do go to Barbuzzo, I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. It’s really quite good.
My group’s reservation, made for six people at 10:45, was certainly rather late, but in my opinion, it’s the time when food tastes best. There’s something about the added ingredient of candlelight. It’s also a good hour to size up the true character of a place, when it starts to loosen up.
In this sense, Barbuzzo’s the perfect case in point. Situated in the epicenter of the nighttime thoroughfare that is south 13th street, the place takes on a more ruminative air after 10 o’clock. With an unassuming façade of glass, the night and the crowd seem to constantly be gliding through, in and out, while you’re left to observe.
Inside, I was a bit nervous to find that the bar (it’s actually a main draw of the place) took up half the space. But, somehow, it wasn’t boisterous. Closer examination revealed that people seemed to be engrossed in actual conversation. This meant the ambiance never veered towards the haughtily trendy like it does at Buddakan, whose faux-LA-nightclub vibe is all branding, and by serving a confounding conflation of normally disparate Asian cuisine, it’s with no sustenance or point. Conversely, Barbuzzo provides the best sort of nightlife: an organic place around which to meet with good friends and have good drinks, all without feeling compelled to participate in the vacuously voguish. It feels genuine without being too earnest.
But Barbuzzo shines where it matters most—in the execution of its dishes. What would otherwise be great food is made stellar by the deft employment of salt and acid. These components in the right places, at the right time and in the right quantity betray true knowledge and artistry.
For starters, thick doubloons of chewy country bread come warm, glistening with ribbons of olive oil and pearly white beans, all pinpricked with the tartness of an ancient balsamic. Who needs the butter found on conventional toast when there are these steamed legumes willing to yield their velvety interior? And do not, whatever you do, overlook the sheep’s milk ricotta — a dish, nay, a humble appetizer! — which redefines conceptions. The ricotta is silk drizzled in an auric extra-virgin olive oil and crowned with figs — the juices of which mingle with the stark, tannic notes from an aged vin cotto to produce something ambrosial. Be warned though, for you will forever more look at the tubs of mealy ricotta in the supermarket with true derision.
Though not all the main courses attain the same heights, some do—the pasta and gnocchi in particular. The strozzapreti was a trek through pristine forestland on a plate, with toasted walnuts and pan-seared chanterelles lending their taste of earth and smoke along with peppery arugula and the elevating zip of lemon zest. The whole thing was topped with another dollop of that divine ricotta (someone in the kitchen was after my own heart). Meanwhile, a friend’s ethereal gnocchi threatened to float off the plate, they were so light. Luckily, a pool of browned butter and wreath of basil served as capable anchors along with a bevy of baby tomatoes. All in all, a truly exceptional sampling of dishes that had a collective sense of warmth. It was a far cry indeed from cafeteria fare — no offense, Sharples, but the food at Barbuzzo imparts a definitive comfort.
If you still feel reluctantly about getting your feet wet outside the shelter of Swarthmore College’s invisible campus-wide dome, though, there is that last tactic of persuasion, ingeniously designed to bypass the intellect altogether and appeal straightaway to the primal desire in all of us for inordinate and unconscionable amounts of sugar.
And as far as that lofty practice of the confectionary arts is concerned, Barbuzzo is something of a sinister mastermind. Need I say more than the dessert item that launched a thousand blog posts (in and around Philly, at least): the salted caramel budino. If Philadelphia really did hype, this would be its darling, and not for nothing—served in an unassuming mason jar receptacle, the caramel-infused custard showcases Barbuzzo’s consistent knack for counterbalance. Here, fleur de sel provided wisps of saltiness which unlocked a new depth to the burnt-sugar backdrop. At the bottom, one’s spoon collides with a slab of dark chocolate crust — delectably buttery and salty, it would make a piecrust for the gods, but for now, the world is not ready. Finally, I can also recommend — or rave about — the Chianti soaked prunes, a more modest choice, but my personal favorite nonetheless. The kitchen reduces Chianti wine and simmers plump prunes in the syrup until past tender and serves them on a cloud of Italian mascarpone, scented with a transformative dose of orange.
Yes, as I stepped out onto the street much later in the evening, I felt different. For one, I was full and content, but any weight gain was offset by my wallet’s newly slender figure. The experience of dining at Barbuzzo is not, especially by college-student standards, very cheap. But, college-student standards become unbearable after a while and breaking the infinite class-Sharples-homework-bed cycle every once in awhile should not be measured in dollars and cents.