In 2005 in Bon Appetit magazine, Philadelphia area native, critic Alan Richman called Vetri “probably the best Italian restaurant in America.” Having secured a coveted 9PM Saturday evening reservation for four for The Chef's Grand Tasting Menu, which is only offered on Friday and Saturday evenings, I was finally able to form my own opinion.
The premise of The Chef's Grand Tasting Menu, considered by the restaurant to be the epitome of the Vetri experience, is to create “customized multi-course tasting menus for each table...a seamless succession of dishes and wines personalized to each individual's taste.” Each diner is presented a menu, hand-painted by Chef Marc Vetri, based on available seasonal ingredients for that particular evening's dinner. From this menu, with the consultation of the server and the wine staff, the table's meal would be constructed. At the end of the meal, the signed menu was ours to keep. Ours contained a total of 11 savory items and 4 desserts. Amongst the 4 of us, we were served 10 of the savory courses and all 4 desserts, with the specific placement of dishes determined in several instances by preferences cited at the beginning of the meal. The lone savory course omitted was “”red mullet with pepperonata and saffron mayonaisse,” the only fish on the menu.
Vetri, located in a town house in Central Philadelphia, is small, intimate and quite romantic. The dining room is warm and elegant, lending a feeling of being in a stately private home. The service is assured and efficient, friendly, but not overly familiar. With warm earth tones and low light predominating, the restaurant was pretty, but not particularly camera friendly, thus only photos of a few of the dishes came out well enough to present here.
For each course with the exception of dessert and the initial three pronged amuse, which we each received, two different preparations were presented with one served to one member of a couple and the other to the other member of a couple. It amounted to everyone receiving a 15 course meal as my wife and I tasted each other's savory courses and all four of us tasted each of the desserts. Serving the meal this way, saved on dinnerware, saved on plating, saved on wine and saved on time, but it scrimped on elegance, since it is never as elegant to eat from a plate that has already been sampled from. Of course, we didn't have to share plates, but that would have only been half the experience.
The amuse, separated on a long narrow plate into three sections was mostly forgettable, though I enjoyed the bit of pork belly more than the other components, one of which contained foie gras. We were served a glass of prosecco with the amuse.
The first platings from the menu followed a bit after. I received the “Sweet Onion Crepe” over white truffle fondue with Parmesan while my wife received house-brined “Sliced Pork Butt with Horseradish and Radish Salad.” My friend, David and I were the only ones indulging in the wine pairings, so his dishes tended to mirror my wife's, to enable the restaurant to present different wines to each of us. Of the first two dishes, the sweet onion crepe was the more elegant and the more delicious, a conclusion that would have surprised me, had I done the ordering for myself. The pork butt was truly nothing special. Had the pork packed more flavor or nuance, it may have justified its relatively inelegant presentation, but alas, it did not. I was served a glass of Domaine de La Patine, 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley to accompany the decidedly French feeling crepe.
For the next progression I received “Eggplant Terrine with Salsa Rossa and Marcona Almonds”, while my wife received a Vetri signature, “Snails with Watercress Crema and Crème Fraiche.” Although it was highly processed, I could buy the association of the eggplant dish, which happened to be quite delicious, with Italy, however, not so on the snails, which once again felt more French than Italian. Of course, Italy is a large country with a varied cuisine, so there is plenty of leeway, but still.... Though considered one of Vetri's classics and a signature, I failed to find the magic in the dish outside of its pretty presentation. Flavor-wise, it was surprisingly drab. The Librandi Ciro Rosato 2008 from Calabria, Italy worked well with the eggplant as did the remainder of the pairings, even if none truly stood out as particularly memorable.
Another signature was up next for me, Vetri's “Spinach Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Shaved Ricotta Salata.” Finally, here was a dish that clearly had Italian origins. To me, what separates the best gnocchi from lesser ones is their ethereal lightness. While delicious, these were anything but light. My wife was served “Cavatelli with Fava and Truffle Pecorino.” A subtle dish, it was lighter than the gnocchi, but unfortunately that additional lightness seemed to come at the expense of flavor.
The level of the food took a significant turn for the better with the next course. The “Porcini Ravioli with langoustines” was full flavored, delicious, Italian and original. I grudgingly gave up half the dish to my wife, but my hesitation soon turned to joy when I tasted the remains of her “Rosemary Pappardelle with Lamb Bolognese.” One of my two favorite dishes of the evening, I now started to get a glimpse of what all the fuss has been about with this restaurant. The pasta was ethereal and the bolognese sublime.
My other favorite dish came with the next and final savory course. A large double grilled veal chop was brought to the table for display before returning to the kitchen for plating and service. I was the beneficiary of Vetri's “Grilled Veal with Chantarelles,” while my wife, who is not crazy about veal received “Baby Goat with Soft Polenta.” I got to eat my entire plating of juicy, flavor-packed veal chop and lovely, earthy chantarelles and still taste the kid. The kid was tasty, but I definitely won with the veal. Vetri's charms were becoming clearer yet.
Unfortunately, my growing sense of appreciation was knocked back with a lackluster pre-dessert of strawberry sorbet with black raspberries. This wasn't bad, it just wasn't anything special. Wonderful things can be done with strawberries and raspberries, but this was far from wonderful.
I've noticed a trend with some finer restaurants when trying to show off their dessert capabilities during degustations. Rather than drawing out the dinner and serving each diner a taste of each dessert, they take the easy and lazy way out, by serving each diner a different dessert and having them share by passing the desserts around the table. That is not so bothersome when the dining partners are lovers or at the least very close friends, but what does one do if with casual acquaintances? Fortunately for us, we were all close friends, so hygiene was not a huge issue, but still it lacks elegance.
Usually, in these situations I wind up lusting after someone else's dessert, discovering one I liked better than my own during the pass around. On this occasion, however, that was not the case. Amongst the “Chocolate Polenta Souffle,” the “Cherries with Pistachio Zabaione,” the “Blackberry Zuppa Inglese” and the “Strawberry Zeppole,” my Cherries with Pistachio Zabaione was the clear winner. Out of the others, the only real competition came from the souffle. The zeppole was acceptable, but the Blackberry Zuppa Inglese was boring and totally forgettable.
Make no mistake, Vetri is a fine restaurant. It is warm, romantic and has fine food, lovely wine and good, professional service. They also emphasize some of the little things that help to make a dining experience special, such as the signed menu, take away muffins and detailed descriptions of the wines. With all due respect to Alan Richman, though, I do not agree that Vetri is “probably the best Italian restaurant in America.” Not even close. While our meal had some notable highs, it had some distinct lows and far too many simply good dishes to justify that sort of accolade or even its steep $135/person price tag (add $90pp for the wine pairing). Overall, I liked my meal, but I can't say that I loved it.