With his down vest cinched tight and knit cap snug over his bald dome, Marc Vetri - nose gashed from a pre-dawn jujitsu session with his chefs - was ready to bolt from his new pizzeria for New Jersey, to another, even newer outpost of his ever-expanding empire.
But then he stepped back between the white marble counter and roaring furnace of the wood-fired oven at three-month-old Pizzeria Vetri. Was the maestro about to get his hands dirty in flour?
"No way," quipped server Maddy Booth on cue. "He's what we call an 'unleavening agent.' "
"Nice," barked the chef, squinting his appreciation at the witty burn.
Vetri these days, of course, is quite the opposite. He's the human equivalent of a super yeast, fermenting expansion, growth, and chewy character in everything he touches, from his restaurant group (which just went interstate with a new Osteria in Moorestown), to his million-dollar-a-year foundation (now improving lunches in 10 schools), to his extensive travel research on pizza and pasta (the book to be published in 2015).
The pizza crust here is his latest masterpiece - a modified version of the Osteria dough that puffs like a Neapolitan, but that has more crisp and chew (almost intuitive in its spring), with a lingering savor that comes from two days' age. That dough is the essential building block for what makes Pizzeria Vetri's pies contenders for the city's best, from the heat-blistered marinara topped just with hand-crushed tomatoes, slivered garlic, and oregano, to the more elaborate crudo, a hot white pie topped with cool tangy chunks of milky buffalo mozz and silken sheets of prosciutto. But it's the complete package, from toppings and menu twists, to the drink program and overall feel, that puts it on top.
It's no small feat, considering Philly's pizza landscape is light years ahead of its sorry state when Osteria first introduced authentic margheritas to North Broad Street five years ago.
Of course, Vetri's gotten plenty of essential help from his chef-partners, Jeff Michaud and Brad "Rotolo Daddy" Spence; beverage wiz Steve Wildy, and partner Jeff Benjamin keeping the numbers in line. And they've all delivered on the oak-fire-hot anticipation that's built since the pizzeria project was announced.
The first shot of greatness, though, isn't even exactly a pizza, though it's made with the same dough. It's a Spence creation called a rotolo ("RO-tolo"), essentially a savory sticky-bunlike roulade whose layers of mortadella, paper-thin dough, and ricotta cheese form crispy-edged concentric rings beneath an emerald tumble of chunky pistachio pesto.
My lunch guest later confessed he'd muttered "rotolo" to himself like a soothing chant that night when he returned to the reality of his low-cal tuna dinner. Even for the less-deprived - a rotolo is food of the gods, one of the best morsels I've savored all year, and at $3.50, probably the finest bargain.
Nothing is over $18 here, which is eminently fair for 12-inch Neapolitan-style pizzas of this quality (most are $15 or less). And there would be many memorable bites, as well as a few let-downs.
My biggest complaint is simply a matter of size and logistics. Parking can be a hassle. And there's no good reason this pizzeria should have only 30 seats - other than a sweet real estate deal, both for Vetri and the landlord, who acquired a star tenant to lend his Granary apartment complex a shiny luster. (I'd rather it swapped spaces with the large Le Pain Quotidien being built right next door.)
Vetri insists he likes his pizzerias cramped and energetic. And with tight communal seating and a decibel level in the mid 90s, he has succeeded on both counts in his sleek, subway-tiled white dining room, with huge photos of Naples, and a marble counter around the pizza station.
It's a powerhouse built for speed, with a double-mouthed Renato hearth and chef Manny Perez (a vet of both Osteria and Stella) overseeing weekends that can turn out 700 pizzas a day, many for take-out. But still, with no reservations, expect a minimum 45-minute wait and shop at the nearby Whole Foods market before getting a text that your seat is ready.
It's enough that I was thoroughly cranky by the time we settled down to eat. But with daily hours from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., why bother even going at peak hours? After more pleasant meals at lunch and mid-week supper, I wouldn't.
Save your Friday pizza cravings instead for one of several more accessible close competitors, especially Nomad, whose Bella Vista location still makes the margherita that makes me hear angels sing.
The pizza nerds - a fanatical, irrational cult - will dissect every detail of this deceptively simple but infinitely variable art, from the provenance of the flour to the oven's dome heat. What matters most to me is touch, and the pure harmony of flavors and textures. Vetri's margherita was its one weakness, the traditionally simple sauce slightly flatter than Nomad's (not enough salt? heat-caramelized sweet?) against the clouds of Di Bruno's mozz. The sauce-only marinara, curiously, had all the swagger.
Otherwise, each pie was a revelation, from the sheer eggplant rounds layered with creamy shreds of cool stracciatella on the melanzana, to the dabs of fennel-seed sausage tangled with fresh fennel fronds. Oil-packed tuna crumbled with cippolini onions and a flicker of chili flake replicated one of my favorite pasta combos. Smoked provolone was the key to elevating an oyster mushroom special. Even the quattro formaggi rose above the classic - usually sogged by its curds - with a blend of gorgonzola, mozz, smoked provolone, and fontina that raised eyebrows with its elegance and complexity.
The small bar is surprisingly stocked with worthy options to wash it all down. Craft-beer lovers should be happy with nearly 30 choices, split between bottles and cans, including Italian icons like Baladin and Del Borgo worth splurging for. But the two Italian wines on tap from the Gotham Project (a pinot grigio and an excellent Nero d'Avola) will surprise any skeptics with their freshness and quality.
There are other things to eat on the menu to bolster the pies, including two excellent salads - an arugula tossed with olives, pesto, roasted potatoes, and golden nuggets of chipped Parmesan. The wood-roasted salad brings seasonal bounty - chanterelles and wax beans on our nights - nestled into a pink collar of cooked Italian ham.
However, the daily "pizza al taglio" feature, a Roman-style square pie served by the slice whose toppings change often, is the surprise that keeps repeat visits seasonal and fresh. One night, a red pie was tiled with coins of roasted meatballs. Another brought smoked speck ham atop gorgonzola cheese. The best, though, was my last, golden roast squash so sweet it was almost candied layered with ricotta dollops and crispy fried sage.
It was almost dessert, but then, I wouldn't have wanted to miss a helping from the cookie jar (chewy pignoli! pistachio gnocchi!) or a soft-serve swirl of cappuccino and sweet cream custards. And just when I was thinking I couldn't eat another pizza - I mean really, when is enough enough?! - along came the Nutella pie. A roasted crust had been separated into crispy layers, then sandwiched around the chocolate-hazelnut cream and molten marshmallows. With Vetri and Co. working the magic pizza ovens, maybe I will have some more.
Chef Manny Perez introduces Pizzeria Vetri at inquirer.com/labanreviews.
Chat online with Inquirer critic Craig LaBan at
2 p.m. Tuesdays at inquirer.com/labanchats.