With Amis and Osteria setting the stage, Marc Vetri's eponymous temple of contemporary Italian was "THE" destination restaurant of my visit to Philadelphia. Opened in 1998 and consistently named as one of the 40-best restaurants in the country by Gayot the intimate 40-seat space (occupying the original Le Bec Fin) serves as host to a Beard Award winning chef, wine program, and service staff...it has also been called the best Italian restaurant in America by both Alan Richman and Mario Batali. With such high praise Vetri had been number one on my "to visit" for approximately 8 months - in other words, since I dined at Per Se (although obviously there were many a great meals in between.)
Raised in Philadelphia and trained both locally and overseas Vetri's concept is the sort you cannot help but respect - high focus on bold flavors while utilizing the very best ingredients with the "simplest techniques to convey their purity." Combining this concept with award winning service and a menu of classics as well as seasonal updates plus an environment intended to replicate dinner at a friend's house Vetri seemed like everything I want from my dining experience. Explaining via E-mail that I hoped to experience as many signatures as possible I was assured that this could easily be accomidated whether I attended for the Degustazione or a weekday meal. Obviously opting for the signature Friday Degustazione the expectations were high to say the very least.
Making my way up to the tiny row-house on Spruce I couldn’t help but think of Babbo or VOLT, but on making my way in the door the feel was more French Laundry – a small entry way with a rather simple hostess stand and lovely flowers. Greeted promptly and pleasantly by one of the nearly entirely female staff I was led to a small table in the main dining room. Chair and table pulled out for me I took a seat and once my water selection was confirmed the hostess returned to station as the restaurant was already filling up despite opening only 5 minutes earlier.
Greeted next by one of the 5 female servers I was offered a glass of Prosecco to welcome me – while I don’t normally consume alcohol I’d never tried Prosecco so I agreed. Dry and sweet with hints of citrus; in my opinion better than champagne I have to say it was a welcomed flavor. Greeted next by the Sommelier he explained the wine pairing and when I stated I most certainly couldn’t handle that much liquor and asked what he recommended as something that would pair best with the later courses since I planned to nurse my Prosecco he surprisingly recommended the most affordable per-glass item on the menu, a lovely Rose title Librandi, Ciro Rosato 2008 with hefty hints of strawberry, cherry, and spice.
Greeted next by my captain for the evening the menu format was explained and my requests for “mostly” classics confirmed. For those unfamiliar with the Degustazione there is only one menu with 4 sections, each section containing 3-5 options. From that list the diner is served, at the chef’s discretion, 2 Antipasti, 2 Pasti, a Secondi, a palate cleanser, and a dolci. One can substitute a cheese course for the dolci or add it on for a mere $10. Both diners are not guaranteed the same menu, but likes and dislikes are accounted for. Stating I was not opposed to any of the options I was met with a smile and left with great anticipation.
Sitting solo my neighbors decided to chat with me, an older couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. Nice folks I use them as a reference with regard to the sound level at Vetri – it is quiet enough that you can hear the table next to you, but loud enough that the buzz of the restaurant can provide more than enough privacy. Browsing around the room at the lovely florals, hard woods, and yellow walls everything felt very “Vetri,” after having been to the other two restaurants. Also similar to Osteria and Amis was the fantastic service; though obviously a bit more refined at the flagship it remained humble, conversant, and formal without feeling stuffy.
Seated for approximately twenty minutes my amuse du jour would arrive – or, actually four of them. Beginning right to left my first taste of Vetri would be spicy house made Calabrese salami with hefty porky flavors well tempered by pepper, paprika, and onion. Next up, a lightly fried Zucchini fritter with a supple and aromatic interior tasting of cinnamon and cheese – crunch giving way to creamy. Skipping to the end of the platter I next sampled the Rabbit Rillet – expectedly gamey and cut with just a hint of chives and toasted bread it was good, but unmemorable compared to the rest. The final bite, a Vetri classic, would be the Foie Gras Pastrami with peach mustarda on brioche. Smooth as butter, spiced precisely like pastrami, and accented by the sweet compote – a beautiful bite that I could have certainly tolerated in greater abundance.
With amuse plate cleared the bread man (always my favorite staff member unless there is a mignardise cart) arrived and presented a plate of freshly pressed olive oil along with three styles of olives. Salty and smooth I managed to go through 2-bowls of the savory fruits paired with the warm house made breads of the evening - Semolina Focaccia and Tuscan Wheat. The first salty and dense, the second airy and mildly bitter, but both a nice pairing with the olives and oil.
Almost as if reading my mind the tasting menu proper would begin with a seasonal selection - the Squid and Artichoke Galette. Fried gently and drizzled with olive oil and lemon the dish was as much fritter as galette and the creamy texture of the artichokes balanced nicely with the succulent and slightly savory squid. A solid opening act, but undoubtedly the weakest of the evening...which says a lot for everything that would follow.
Arriving next would be the first in a succession of Vetri classics (and per many his most wonderful,) The Sweet Onion Crepe with truffled parmesan fondue and parmesan gratinee. Utilizing caramelized golden onions rolled with cheese into the form of a crepe and then sliced the round is then topped with grated parmesan and broiled. Subsequently plated onto an inverted bowl in a shallow pool of truffle accented fondue the presentation is actually quite subtle – but the flavor is anything but. Aromatic without being pungent, salty without overpowering the nuance, crispy on the exterior and smooth within – perhaps the best thing ever done with an onion outside the famous “000” at Restaurant Eve…perhaps even better.
Having sopped up every drop of fondue with the focaccia it was a surprisingly short amount of time before my next course would arrive. Potentially my most anticipated dish since Achatz's Black Truffle Explosion the Spinach Gnocchi in Brown Butter was everything I'd hoped for and more. Having been told jokingly by a friend the day before that I should keep my hands above the plate to make sure these perfect dumplings didn't float away my first bite awakened me to exactly what he meant - light as a cloud yet so densely packed with flavor that they did not even seem real. Made of only sieved spinach, egg, and a "spot" of cream the four balls rested unassumingly in a pool of scalded butter with shredded smoked ricotta atop yet somehow the whole was much more than the sum of its parts - the best gnocchi I've ever had, even if they contained none of the ingredients of traditional gnocchi at all.
Again returning a clean plate to the kitchen and again receiving my next course within ten minutes, my second pasta would prove nearly as lovely as the first. Once again featuring a restrained and simple plating, Almond Tortellini was anything but simple and restrained - as a matter of fact, its complexity given the minimalist ingredients was perhaps more impressive than the gnocchi. Packed to almost bursting the pockets of pasta were soft and smooth while the interior of risotto and creamy cheese provided a nuanced contrast. Topped with crunchy toasted almonds and lightly sauced with a reduced white truffle sauce the entirety of the plate was everything Vetri promises about ingredient purity and simplistic technique of preparation - flawless.
Not yet nearing satiety (yes, I know...) I was a tad worried when I was told my main course would be arriving next - thankfully there would be a twenty minute delay and some more bread as my stomach caught up with my brain. Arriving shortly and impressively plated would be "Capretto" or Baby Goat on soft golden polenta. With crispy skin giving way to smoky grilled loin (I was told I got "the best piece") the flavor of the goat was much less meaty than the version at Komi and the skin was far less crispy - it was almost like a different animal. Pairing the mesquite grilled flavor with the buttery smooth polenta was a nice variation in texture, but overall I think I fancy a less refined approach for goat.
Having seen the cheese carte on entry I was somewhat disappointed when cheeses were selected by the staff and served on a cheese board, but with that said the selections were excellent. Served with local wildflower honey and fig marmalade plus raisin toast the board consisted of four selections in ample portion for the mere $10 supplement. Amongst the selections were Ubriaco del Piave (cow’s milk cheddar with red wine,) Pecorino Tartufo (sheeps milk with truffle shavings,) Verde Capra (Goats' Milk Blue cheese,) and Moliterno (raw sheeps milk with black truffle.) Usually a fan of mild fromage I have to say I was most taken by the Verde Capra and its creamy texture with pungent flavor and the Moliterno with its earthy aromatics and sharp taste.
The intermezzo of the day would be a watermelon Gelee w/ Prosecco. Instructed to make sure I mixed the two layers well I did exactly that and consuming the single shot of liquid provided a taste and texture not dissimilar from a jello shot with significantly more watermelon than alcohol.
Prior to dessert proper I was offered coffee - La Colombe once again. Stating that I'd love coffee, especially if dessert was chocolate based (after Amis and Osteria I knew this to be wise,) I was assured that the dish would indeed be chocolate. Consuming three cups from an elegant French Press La Colombe once again did not fail to impress with its bold caramel high notes and thick cocoa finish.
Having noted only one chocolate dessert on the menu I knew what would be next and I was not disappointed when the signature Chocolate Polenta Souffle with Vanilla Gelato arrived. Not technically a soufflé in presentation the dessert was fantastic in smell and taste, but most interesting in texture. Utilizing Italian cornmeal in the almost "lava cake" presentation the interior was not precisely molten, but more like the interior of a soufflé while the exterior possessed a crunchy coating not unlike a canele. Paired with creamy vanilla gelato that tasted almost as if it were yogurt based this was classic "chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream" done, like everything else, simply and expertly.
Happy and impressed but still wanting more I was very happy when the mignardises arrived with another refill of coffee. Featuring a dense Chocolate torte, Pistachio brittle, Blueberry pate a fruit, Yuzu tarts, Honey Macaroon, and Tiramisu opera cakes each option was quite nicely done but the brittle and macaroon stood out most - both were among the best mignardises I've had since Alex or TRU.
The final treat of the evening would arrive with the hand-written bill - a take home bag, signed and painted menu, and two lemon muffins for "breakfast" - or, the walk home. Surprisingly mild the polenta based muffins were actually quite lovely and their toothsome texture bested either of the table breads by some degree. Before leaving a veritable parade of persons including the chef du cuisine, sommelier, hostess, and waitresses would stop by to ask how I enjoyed the evening - a very nice touch indeed.
When it was all said and done I made my way from the final stop on the tour of Vetri very happy but at the same time thinking that when (not if, but when) I come back I would likely not go for the Degustazione again. While a great deal at $145 for 9 courses plus Prosecco, amuses, mignardises, and take home muffins (essentially the same number of courses and gifts as The French Laundry at $240 and Per Se at $275) there is a certain kind of "plate envy" that occurs when you see a menu with 15 options that sound great and you only get 8 of them - a nagging part of me that wished I'd have offered to pay double to try everything, or to go during the week and order the grand tasting plus multiple supplements. Some may call the previous statement gluttonous...that's okay, I'm fine with being labeled as such when every single course at three different restaurants was good to great while the service and setting was equally grand. Rumor has it Vetri will next be opening a spot in Atlantic City...I haven't been there yet...but I bet it will be excellent.