One of the greatest compliments we’ve ever received at the restaurant was from a guest from Philadelphia who told us that dining with us reminded her of dining at Vetri. This was incredibly meaningful to us because Vetri is widely considered to be one of the top five restaurants in Philadelphia and has actually been called the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast by Mario Batali. But as impressive as that sounds, it was meaningful for the even more important reason that we really admire the cooking and philosophy of Marc Vetri, who founded Vetri Ristorante in 1998.
Although restaurant culture in the US has changed dramatically in the last twenty years and one can now eat the authentic cooking of Italy in numerous restaurants in many cities, Marc was one of the first to bring true Italian cooking to Philly. Like Mario Batali, his formative training came not from culinary school but from apprenticeship in Italy. Marc had the extremely good fortune to take up hallowed real-estate: the original location of Le Bec Fin at 1312 Spruce St.
After nearly a decade of tremendous success at Vetri, Marc founded several other more casual restaurants in Philadelphia. These have been our favorite places to eat in Philadelphia for years, but for various reasons we had never dined at Vetri itself until this past Sunday. Mostly this has been due to cost. Vetri offers only a multi-course tasting menu for $155, and with wine, tax, and gratuity, the cost for two people usually exceeds $500, quite a stretch for our limited means.
So our decision to dine at Vetri was a long overdue, and it did not disappoint. It was worth every penny and was a true inspiration for us. Marc’s initial training was in the Northern city of Bergamo in Lombardia, and the cooking at Vetri has remained a reflection of the rich, luxurious but understated cooking of that region. It’s cooking that is about fidelity to tradition, about simple but exquisite flavors. It is not an approach to cooking which is about novelty, creativity, or the ego of a chef.
The tasting menu at Vetri consists of six proper courses along with several other surprises and treats from the kitchen. We enjoyed dishes including spinach gnocchi, almond tortellini, ricotta ravioli with nutmeg and orange, braised goat with polenta, pappardelle with rabbit and peach, ribeye with beans and olive oil, pistacchio flan, and a blueberry custard tart. All of these dishes were prepared with an exquisite attention to detail. It was such a relief to be offered the moderate portion sizes necessary to enjoy a meal of such breadth. Best of all, it was a relief to put ourselves in the hands of a kitchen with good taste and judgment. Smartphone photography just didn’t feel appropriate.
As first-rate as the cooking was, however, what delighted us most of all was the approach to service. We were somewhat prepared for this because we’ve been reading Front of the House by Jeff Benjamin, who joined Marc as general manager of Vetri back in 1998. Jeff’s philosophy of service is that true hospitality is based on genuine interest in and the desire to please one’s guests. Too often, even in excellent restaurants, the service is either too informal and amateur, or too cold and aloof. One often senses that servers perceive not people but wallets, and that service too often is based not on a desire to genuinely please guests but on a desire to increase the size of one’s tip. Too often, one questions the sincerity of one’s server, and too often one cringes at the lack of knowledge one’s server possesses of the menu. We’ve never experienced anything like the approach to service we enjoyed at Vetri: a team of professionals working together seamlessly with an astounding depth of knowledge, complete competence, and an absolute dedication to providing us with a flawless experience while treating us like old friends.
We’re humbled to be compared occasionally to this restaurant, but we’re also deeply gratified because we recognize in Vetri an approach to cooking and service which deeply resonate with our own values and goals for our little restaurant. Although we’re proud of what we’ve done with Old Tioga Farm, we are constantly looking for ways to grow, develop, and improve. Dining as Vetri gave us a perfect opportunity.