On Sept. 22, 1998, Marc Vetri fed 16 people on the opening night of Vetri - his 38-seater at 1312 Spruce St., the charmed former home of Le Bec-Fin and Ciboulette.
"Sixteen covers," the Abington-bred Vetri told me. "Some nights back then, we were lucky to do four. I was happy to have my own restaurant. That was my goal. To plan on this level of success is, like, ridiculous."
That would be - 15 years later - a mini-empire created with business partner Jeff Benjamin (Osteria, Amis, Alla Spina, Pizzeria Vetri, with a second Osteria on the way and a new spot coming to the Navy Yard, called The Brig) and a foundation that supports childhood causes, including the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.
Back in 1998, Vetri simply opened the doors of his thoroughly Italian Italian restaurant. "Nobody knew about it," he said. "Now, even when a no-name chef opens a restaurant, everyone knows."
When I asked how Vetri became Vetri, he replied: "You know, it was a little bit of luck. I was in the right place at the right time. Ever read [Malcolm Gladwell's book] Outliers? It's a similar situation in that I was opening up a restaurant right at the outset of this huge restaurant boom in the '90s. Right now, it's much harder now to open up and garner all that hype. Back then, there was not a lot of us. The second reason is that there was basically red sauce Italian here. There was no real Italian food. There was American Italian food, which is awesome but no one had sweetbreads and baby goat on the menu. These were new things -; not really new, but they were new for Philadelphia. We also stayed small and stayed true to who we were. We got a lot of offers to expand. I just wanted to make Vetri something special. We reinvented it every year."
(See an early menu here: Page 1 and Page 2.)
Vetri also has become a springboard for a generation of chefs. Adam Leonti is Vetri's chef now, following such lights as MIchael Solomonov, Dionicio Jimenez, Joey Baldino, Jim Burke, Chip Roman, Brad Spence and Jeff Michaud. Aside from Leonti and Justino Jimenez, all of these chefs left to open their own restaurants after two years. Spence and Michaud are still in the Vetri family.
Even with the kitchen turnover, such as it is, Vetri points out that "we are the only restaurant in the world that has had one busboy: Erasto Perez."
See this profile from opening day by Inquirer writer Dan Rubin.