A side of Tuscan beef is no match for an Italian chef with a cleaver. But as young Marc Vetri watched a master dismantle a Chianina steer into steaks in his Bergamo kitchen, then grill them over an oak fire for lunch, he was simply awestruck.
"Always be able to do everything with your hands," Graziato Pinato told Vetri, then in the final months of his yearlong training at Taverna Colleoni dell'Angelo.
Recounted in Vetri's new cookbook, Il Viaggio di Vetri (Ten Speed Press), it's just one of the many anecdotes and recipes that pay homage to the old-school chefs, 80-year-old pasta-rolling grannies, and mustachioed mentors of his learning years in Italy.
But there is a resonance in that memory - a sort of primal encounter of man, food, and fire - that informs so much of the success of his restaurant Vetri, the intimate townhouse gem he opened 10 years ago this week with maitre d' and co-owner Jeff Benjamin.
This was a town simmered in a century's worth of Italian American red sauce and meatballs, but Vetri dared to forgo the penne marinara and Caesar salad.
"What [people] wanted was the real Italian experience," he says, "how [Italians] really eat when they go out and kill a wild boar. They make a ragu and toss it lightly with fettuccine."
So Vetri worked to capture and elevate the magic of authentic rustic cooking here, dusting that wild boar ragu and chestnut fettuccine with cocoa. He roasted goats over an open spit. He tossed hand-rolled pici pasta with guinea hen ragu and plums. He turned sweetbreads into ethereal ravioli, stewed tripe and white beans beneath a Parmesan crust, and crafted spinach gnocchi so light, only the lacework of ricotta salata on top seemed to hold them earthbound.
Vetri had begun his ascent toward becoming one of the most influential Philadelphia chefs of his generation. But not without the support of the city's best maitre d' in Benjamin, whose photographic memory for customer details is legendary. There was also good karma in one of the city's most storied spaces – the 40-seat dining room of 1312 Spruce St.
The Abington-born Vetri, fresh off a cooking stint in New York that followed his Italian journey, had considered debuting in a much larger, flashier Broad Street space. But he chose Spruce Street, in part, on the advice of one of its previous residents: Georges Perrier.
"I told him, 'Marc, if I was you, to make my name, I'd go to Spruce Street. If you can cook, you will do well,' " said Perrier, who started Le Bec-Fin there in 1970 before eventually moving to Walnut Street. Talk about an understatement. Vetri is just one of five Philadelphia restaurants to win this newspaper's four-bell rating. Major accolades from Gourmet, Food & Wine, and the James Beard Foundation have stoked the growing acclaim, anointing it one of the finest restaurants in the country. Reservations for the lavish weekend tasting menus disappear within 10 minutes of coming available - two months in advance. His second restaurant, the larger and more casual Osteria, has become a hit in its own right.
But the tiny kitchen and cozy dining room of Vetri remain his jewel - a passion-driven culinary atelier that has proven a remarkable training ground for some of the city's best young talents, with five Vetri alums now running three-bell restaurants.
More impressively, Vetri has become over time far more than its gastronomic pleasures. For devoted regulars, it is the touchstone of joyous meals remembered, and the scene of a decade's worth of life events marked by chocolate polenta souffles with glowing candles.
"There are customers who we've seen every anniversary for 10 years," Vetri says. "They had their first date here and now they have three kids. And we know them, and it's a really neat thing."
The regulars have watched Marc Vetri grow up, too.
At 41, he and his wife, Megan, now have two children - Maurice, 2, and 2-month-old Catherine - whom he sees each afternoon at their Center City rowhouse during a three-hour break.
In between running the two restaurants, there is still room for weekly basketball games at the Sporting Club ("I can still hang"), for hand-painting the tasting menus, for reconnaissance trips to farms and other restaurants, and for nightly jam sessions with one of his 12 guitars that sometimes last until 4 a.m. (Before a food career took over, he was the lead guitarist for a Los Angeles band called Mild Mustard.)
To see Vetri these days, striding in his chef whites through the dining room to pull a shot from one of his beloved vintage espresso machines, or tooling around town on a Vulcan motorcyle with his mastiff, Angelo, riding in the sidecar, is to see a man at one with his world, basting in the juices of his unique style.
But he wasn't always the picture of confidence, said his sister, Risa Vetri Furman, now the district attorney of Montgomery County. His lifelong struggle with a stutter, she said, was particularly challenging to him as a child.
"He was the opposite of a confident kid," she said, recalling young Marc as awkward and unsure, his glasses perpetually cockeyed and taped. "The speech problems were very difficult, and some kids were not particularly nice. But he learned to stand up for himself. . . . Once he hit a guy, they didn't come back."
"But what he went through as a kid," she said, "was the real building block for what he's become. It's also made him very compassionate and understanding with other people."
Vetri and Benjamin's commitment to Alex's Lemonade Stand - their fourth annual benefit last year raised $150,000 to fight childhood cancer - is one measure. But Vetri's relationships with other cooks also portray a chef with a patient and quiet intensity, who communicates by setting an example.
"With Marc, he's not throwing pots or pans or threatening you," says former sous-chef Michael Solomonov, now co-owner of Zahav. "He's, like, making you cappuccino or biscotti. It's different . . . but you are taught to think like a chef."
Learning to embrace the Vetri aesthetic of simplicity elevated through ingredients and technique is not easy, though, for young chefs to master.
"Cooks are scared to make simple things," said Vetri. "They think you need all this stuff in there - a grilled this with a gelee of that and a puree of this and leaf of this and cracker of that for texture. By the end, it's six different dishes on one plate."
"I thought I was a hotshot coming from Striped Bass, but Vetri's all about taking four ingredients and making them perfect. Here he was making polenta with water, olive oil and salt, and I could not get it right!"
Vetri's insistence on preparing everything to order, in contrast to the typical restaurant-style prep - from peeling potatoes for a galette to butchering a whole turbot, pitting olives, mincing herbs and finishing sauces - makes it feel more like cooking for 100 diners than 40.
"But that really makes you a strong line cook," said Jim Burke, another Vetri alum, who now owns James. "After a year, I felt like I could walk into any kitchen."
And many of them did just that - to three-bell reviews - including Burke, Solomonov, Dionicio Jimenez at Xochitl, Chip Roman at Blackfish, and Jeff Michaud, now the chef and co-owner at Vetri's Osteria.
Their departures were inevitable and even encouraged by Vetri after a couple of years, before Osteria opened in 2007, showing his first inklings of expansion. But as he looks toward possible future projects - a Bergamo-style trattoria, a casual pizzeria, and maybe a casino location for Osteria - he hopes to retain more of his crew, like current Vetri chef Brad Spence.
But don't hold your breath. Vetri's reluctance to jump on quick-buck gambits is renowned. He had about 50 serious partnership offers before he decided to open Osteria alone on North Broad Street with Benjamin and Michaud.
"I don't like taking money from people," he said. "I don't like owing anybody anything."
To Stephen Starr, who twice approached Vetri only to be rebuffed, "Marc is just cautious . . . but he's a good role model and good guy."
In the meantime, Vetri is enjoying the moment. He unveiled a fresh renovation of his namesake restaurant that brought elegant Venetian plaster walls and a new mahogany door. The cookbook that documents the culinary journey and the dishes that have won him such acclaim is scheduled for an October release.
To celebrate, he's even throwing a 10th anniversary party for friends in the parking lot next to Vetri, where he plans to carve a whole swordish on a bar of ice and throw slabs of it on a wood-fired grill.
"Everyone does a pig," he says. "But I like to surprise people. Who's ever seen a whole swordfish, a couple hundred pounds, just lying there? That's cool."
At Marc Vetri's place, the primal encounter of man, food, and fire burns brighter than ever.
Basic Pasta Dough
Makes 6 servings
1 1/4 cups type 00 flour, (pastry flour, see notes) or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup plus 11/2 tablespoons semolina flour
9 large egg yolks
3 to 4 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1. Combine both flours in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the machine running on medium speed, add the egg yolks, water, and oil and mix just until the ingredients come together.
2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for about five minutes, or until silky and smooth, kneading in more flour if the dough is too sticky (the dough is ready if it gently pulls back into place when stretched with your hands).
3. Shape the dough into a six-inch-long log, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to three days (it could get too soft and difficult to roll if left at room temperature).
4. Cut the dough into six equal pieces and let them return almost to room temperature.
5. Position the rollers on a pasta machine at the widest setting, and roll one piece of dough through the rollers two or three times, lightly dusting the dough with flour if necessary to prevent sticking. Reset the rollers to the next narrower setting and again pass the dough through the rollers two or three times, lightly dusting with flour as needed. Flour and pass the dough two or three times through each progressively narrower setting, concluding with the narrowest setting or as directed in individual recipes. Between rollings, continue to dust the dough lightly with flour if needed, always brushing off excess. You should end up with a sheet four to five feet long and thin enough to see your hand through it when it is held up to the light.
6. Lay the pasta sheet on a lightly floured work surface and sprinkle lightly with flour. Use a knife or the cutter attachment on the pasta machine to create the pasta shape specified in individual recipes. When making ravioli, spray the pasta with a little water to keep it from drying out and to give you a little more time to work. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
7. The pasta dough can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to three weeks. Bring the dough to room temperature before rolling and cutting.
- From Il Viaggio di Vetri by Marc Vetri (Ten Speed Press, 2008)
Notes: This pasta dough is a little wetter than others. That gives you more time to work with it before it begins to dry out. If you use the dough right away, you can always add more flour as you are sheeting it.
The type 00 flour or pastry flour is available at Fante's, 1006 S. Ninth St., 215-922-5557.
Per serving: 238 calories, 8 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 9 grams fat, 307 milligrams cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Fazzoletti With Duck Ragu
Makes 6 servings
1 duck breast
1 duck leg
Kosher salt, fresh ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 cup canned plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed
1 rosemary sprig
1 to 11/2 cups chicken stock or water
1 pound basic pasta dough (see previous recipe)
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter
10 Gaeta olives, pitted
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Lightly season the duck breast and leg with salt and pepper.
3. Heat the oil in an ovenproof saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot, add the duck pieces, skin side down, and cook, turning as needed, for about eight minutes or until golden brown on both sides. Remove the duck and discard all but one tablespoon of the fat.
4. Add the carrot, onion, celery and garlic to the pan and saute for about four minutes, or until lightly browned. Pour in the wine, scrape the pan bottom to loosen any browned-on bits, and simmer for about three minutes, or until all of the liquid evaporates.
5. Return the duck pieces to the pan along with the tomatoes and rosemary. Add enough stock to come halfway up the sides of the meat. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook for 90 minutes, or until the duck meat is falling apart. Let the duck pieces cool slightly in the liquid, and then remove them from the liquid.
6. Pass the liquid and vegetables through a food mill fitted with the medium disk (not a blender) and return to the pan. The mixture should be thick like tomato sauce. If it isn't, boil until the liquid reduces in volume and the mixture thickens.
7. Shred the duck meat from the bones, discarding the bones and skin, and return the meat to the sauce.
8. Cook the pasta pieces in a large pot of boiling salted water for 30 to 90 seconds, or until tender, but still firm.
9. Meanwhile, put the ragu in a large saute pan over medium heat. When the pasta is ready, drain, reserving about one cup of the water. Add the pasta to the ragu along with the Parmesan, oil, butter, and olives and toss for a minute or two until the pasta absorbs some of the sauce and the sauce becomes creamy. Add a little of the pasta water if the ragu is too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning before serving.
The ragu can be made up to three days ahead, covered, and refrigerated. Reheat gently before tossing with the cooked pasta.
Barbera and Germano Ettore Vigna della Madre are good wines for braising the duck meat.
Per serving (does not include pasta; see accompanying recipe for pasta nutritional data): 168 calories, 9 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 37 milligrams cholesterol, 347 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.