Blood, sweat and dogged persistence
A successful young chef puts all he has into creating his first restaurant in Center City.
Originally published Sep 23, 1998
``Pesce!'' his No. 2 yells from the kitchen. The fish has arrived, good. Marc Vetri jabbers in Italian, then signs another check, looking at the amount and nodding, trying not to wince.
The carne should be next, followed by the china, followed by the retired man with the quart of paint. That's Salvatore, Vetri's father from Rydal, who used to own a chain of jewelry stores. He's due to slap a fresh coat on the ribs of the awning outside, because the guy who promised that the awning would be ready didn't have it ready.
``This is everything,'' Marc Vetri says. ``I'm totally on the line. ''
It looks as if it actually hurts for the Jewish-Italian chef from Abington to be sitting still for the story of Vetri's, his first restaurant. He's a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken guy of 31, with a shaved head and dark stubble. The star of Bon Appetit and preparer of Roman Passover meals for the James Beard Foundation has dirt under his nails and scratches lacing his forearms. He's done most of the grunt work himself, ripping up four layers of kitchen linoleum with a crowbar, staining the white pine planks he found at a place upstate that makes flooring from old barns, choosing the decor, the logo.
Vetri has plowed his savings into this 38-seat restaurant at 1312 Spruce St., a narrow rowhouse with an exceptional history of aromas: Le Bec-Fin, Ciboulette and Chanterelle all began there. He has no backers - what he didn't squirrel away from his job as executive chef at New York's Bella Blu, he borrowed from the Small Business Administration. He's used to living cheaply. When he moved down from New York, his worldly belongings fit into a pickup truck. For the first two months living in town with his dog, his No. 2 cook and his manager, Vetri slept on the floor.
The ingredients of his place, which opened quietly last night, are sentiment, serendipity and sweat: a turn-of-the-century desk his grandfather owned; a wine table found in the trash in Manhattan's Upper East Side, and a determination that his father first recognized when Vetri was 15.
That persistence came in handy seven years ago, when Vetri showed up at the door of Wolfgang Puck's Granita in Los Angeles, looking for work. Anything. They weren't hiring, chef Joseph Manzare told him. Come back in a few days.
After two days, he returned. No job. Two days later, he was back again. And again and again. The fifth time, a prep guy didn't show. Vetri worked the shift at the pasta station and returned the next night. And the next.
``I went back every day for the next six weeks and I worked for free. Everyone told me, `You're an idiot. They're taking advantage of you. ' ''
Finally, someone quit and he had a paying job. He made himself useful, working alongside Puck some nights. When Vetri was hungry for more, Manzare passed him on to a friend, Piero Selvaggio, owner of L.A.'s Valentino, who wrote him a letter of introduction for an old-world education.
Vetri had told Selvaggio of his love for Italian cooking, ever since the Sundays of his boyhood, when his grandmother would prepare Sicilian feasts at her rowhouse at Eighth and League in South Philadelphia.
Soon, wearing overalls, a bandana and a backpack, Vetri found himself knocking on the door of Taverna Del Colleoni, an elegant restaurant in Bergamo, Italy, outside Milan. He handed the letter of introduction to the owner, who read it, laughed, and had one of the cooks show him to an apartment.
In Bergamo, and at five other Italian restaurants over the course of a year, Vetri did all the prepping, made the pastas, cleaned fish, butchered animals. He learned to make wine and olive oil. He held a pig while a farmhand shot it, and together they made prosciutto, sausage, lard, pancetta, and other dried meats whose names he doesn't even remember.
``I worked, I cooked, I learned. I reinforced the basics, that you don't have to dress up food so much, you just let the natural flavors ring. That's the real intensity of the food. Lots of times, you order something and, [when it arrives], you don't know what it is. `It could be this, it could be that.'
``The simplest food for me is always the best. ''
Simple for him is chestnut fettucine with wild boar, or casoncelli, a meat-filled ravioli tossed with brown butter, pancetta and sage. He'll roast fish with artichokes, potatoes and olives. In a while, he'll add a favorite: baby lamb cooked for the last half-hour in milk. ``It's a real special thing,'' he says.
He'll start off slowly at Vetri's, accepting only a few dozen reservations for each of the first nights, building slowly, letting the servers adapt to his rhythms in the kitchen.
``We'll work out the kinks. There will be kinks. ''
Vetri is nearly done talking when his father walks in carrying a pail of trash.
``Persistence? '' Sal Vetri asks, as his son disappears. ``I don't know where to begin.''
``When Marc was a child, he introduced me to passive resistance. I was a domineering personality and I was constantly on him. He would turn around and do his own thing. . . .
` By age 15, I'd gotten him a job in the jewelry store. He said, `Dad, I appreciate the job, but I have my own job. Washing dishes. ' But at the end of the summer, he would come home after working 10 to 12 hours. I told him, `All these years I've been riding you, you've shown me that you have to make your own decisions.'
``I'm so proud of him, the obstacles he's overcome - going to Italy, not knowing the language. I tease him. `When I grow up,' I says, `I want to be like you. ' ''
Marc comes back from the fax machine, bearing best wishes from old friends at the restaurant in Bergamo.
``In Bocca Al Lupo E Che Questo Crepi, '' it reads. ``Magari Acrosto! ''
Vetri helps with the translation: ``It's like in English, when they say `break a leg': `In the mouth of a wolf, I should wind up. Maybe even a roasted one. ' ''
Daniel Rubin's email is email@example.com