Conducting a Culinary Symphony

Chef Marc Vetri Hits All the Right Notes in Philadelphia

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“I start here,” Vetri says. “Then I might walk down the street to Amis [restaurant number three] and see what’s going on and then I might get a call to go over and help at Osteria because they’re getting slammed.”
Not being in the kitchen every day was a big change for Marc Vetri. Many restaurant critics who had come to recognize the high level of culinary accomplishments of the Vetri restaurant expressed concern that the quality of the food would falter. It hasn’t.
“The myth that you can’t run multiple restaurants is just that,” argues Vetri, who has since opened a fourth restaurant, a gastropub called Alla Spina or “From the Tap.”
Much like a symphony, Vetri’s is an extended culinary composition.
“If you’ve got the right people, you get the opportunity to step back and see things you couldn’t see before. My role has changed. I’m now the conductor.”
One thing Vetri recognizes is that eating in a restaurant is not just about the food. He understands that interaction between the chef and customers is vital, and that is apparent in both the new design—an open kitchen with the line near the tables—and the personalities of the chefs, all of them engaging the guests, sometimes quite raucously.
Vetri also ranks service as the primary challenge in his business.
“Service is more important than the food,” Chef Vetri says. “I mean, I’m a chef. I should know how to cook.” Vetri gives a lot of the credit to his partner Jeff Benjamin for making sure the service is hitting on all cylinders.
“Jeff Benjamin is the yin to my yang,” Vetri explains.
In this case, “yang” is usually dressed in a manner resembling a construction worker or lumberjack. “Yin” seems most casual when his suit jacket is unbuttoned.
“Marc is the most honest person I’ve ever known,” Benjamin says. “Diplomacy isn’t his strong suit. If he disagrees with me, he might say, ‘That’s a terrible idea!’ But you have to understand, it’s never malicious.  Malice is the furthest thing from his mind.”
Benjamin explains that Vetri has recognized the need to be a little more diplomatic in an age of social media. Especially in dealing with guests.
“We might have a guest who’s unhappy with what we do,” Benjamin says, “And Marc will respond, ‘Well, we did what we said we would.’ But being from a guest services background, I want to make the guest come back.”
“Without Jeff Benjamin,” Marc Vetri assures, “there is no Vetri Family.”
“Vetri Family” is the umbrella name given to the restaurants and the Vetri Foundation for Children, of which Benjamin and Vetri are founders and board members. Osteria’s chef Jeff Michaud is a board member. The mission of the foundation “is to support the development of healthy living habits and styles in young people.”
The second Vetri Family restaurant, Osteria, is “what Vetri [the first restaurant] began as,” Marc Vetri says. Osteria’s Michaud, the 2010 James Beard Award Winner for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic (an award Marc Vetri won in 2005), cooked at Vetri before moving north on Broad Street.
Osteria is a relatively casual and bustling restaurant that is about four times the size of the first Vetri restaurant. On this particular night, Jeff Benjamin greets Ashton Cigar owner Robert Levin and his party. Ashton is based in Philadelphia.
“The only places I go to eat are Marc’s restaurants,” Levin explains. “I go to Osteria and Amis on a regular basis. I go to Vetri to celebrate special occasions.”
Go to dinner with Levin and be prepared to eat, and even suffer a little for eating way too much. At Osteria, before anyone has looked at the menu, a special vegetable platter hits the table. Two pizzas are ordered, one of them topped with grilled octopus. Roast suckling pig, “brined for four days and spit-roasted for five hours,” snapper and pastas make up the rest of the meal. No one ordered the pig head.
The night before, at Amis, Vetri’s most casual restaurant, Levin’s party arrived and immediately began to chat with Benjamin, who makes the rounds to the three restaurants every night, and Amis’ chef Brad Spence. The Ashton crew took out cigars and started distributing them.
“Brad is the real cigar smoker,” explains Benjamin. “He smokes more than Marc and me.”
Before the party was barely seated, five appetizers arrived. Mortadella mousse, eggplant caponata, imported bufala ricotta and black pepper, cotechino salami with a red onion marmalade, and an endive and green apple salad with a lemon-thyme vinaigrette. The latter was the perfect three notes.
Benjamin brought out a 2007 nebbiolo that worked with every dish and on its own. At this juncture, a critical mistake was made by Levin and his guests. They began to order entrees.
“I always order too much,” Levin says, shaking his head. “Then they send out more.”
Somehow, swordfish meatballs with creamy polenta and pine nuts showed up, and so did Sal’s (Marc’s father) old school meatballs. Then the pastas came. Tonarelli with pecorino and black pepper; rotini with wild boar ragu and pears; paccheri (a large, short hollow tube noodle) with swordfish and eggplant fries; squid ink linguini with octopus and scallion. (But wait, there’s more!)
Squash lasagna with a ton of parmesan came with the entrees. So did roasted lamb with potatoes. A veal chop Milanese topped with arugula and parmesan rivaled the best ever tasted by anyone at the table. (Everyone then lost track after going into food comas.)
When the waiter came to inquire about dessert, he was threatened with bodily harm, but in the nicest way. So, Chef Spence sent out only two sweets: Tiramisu, a special that night; and “Mom-Mom’s Rice Pudding,” a recipe from Spence’s grandmother. (Okay, the meal really should have started with the rice pudding. It was THAT good, yet no one could eat more than one bite of it.)
“Brad took the rice pudding off the menu once,” Vetri explains. “Of course, several guests ordered it that night. Never again.”
Spend just a little time with Marc Vetri and you will not worry about his losing touch with the kitchen, with the food or with what his customers like to eat. And it’s not so much your father’s Italian food. Unless it is.
About nine years ago, in the Vetri restaurant, when it was considerably more casual, Marc’s father was having dinner on his birthday.
“So we put a red-and-white, checkered tablecloth on one table in the middle of the dining room,” Marc Vetri remembers. When his father arrived with his party, “we put a big bowl of mussels and a big bowl of meatballs on the table.” That kicked off a typical South Philly Italian-American meal.
“There were more than a few envious diners that night,” Marc Vetri recalls, laughing fondly.
Sharing that moment makes it easy to imagine that not too long from now Chef Vetri, for whom “family and doing the right thing are what’s important,” will be back full time in the kitchen of his 30-seat restaurant in that famous Philadelphia townhouse. Still conducting. Still cooking.
“This is not only my dream restaurant,” Vetri explains. “This is every chef’s dream restaurant.”
Alejandro Benes is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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