Marc Vetri: La Dolce Vetri

With wild accolades from foodies far and wide and plans afoot for a third restaurant, Marc Vetri has surpassed Georges Perrier as the city’s most influential chef. But can a quiet, speech-impaired guitar-hero wannabe really cement Philadelphia as America’s next great food city?

THE PORTRAIT HAS an apparition-like duality. On one hand, it seems that Marc Vetri is being immortalized as the Patron, like the vain and supercilious Medici who forced their visages into the frescoes of Venice and Florence. On the other hand, his expression appears so gentle and servile (“I’m-a just bringin’ out some-a nice hot cornmeal here”) that the image seems no more than that of an anonymous craftsman who, on a whim one day, carved his own face onto one of the hordes of gargoyles perched on the rising spires of a great cathedral. Absorbing the abuse from his brother (friends and co-workers piled on, too), Vetri swore that he was going to force some changes to the mural. He threatened to paint over Polenta Man.
 
“I’m hoping Marc is going to get used to it,” says the mural artist, Ann Northrup. “I think it’s so funny and so cute. And it’s really meant to represent all the chefs who have worked in that building.”
 
Those chefs include James Burke, Michael Solomonov, Chip Roman and Dionicio Jimenez, who worked under Vetri and went on to open their own places with his blessing and encouragement. And, perhaps most important, Georges Perrier, who opened his first iteration of Le Bec-Fin here, in 1970.
 
Perrier, of course, became Philadelphia’s first real celebrity chef. The fiery Frenchman went on to bigger, fancier, costlier digs, opened spin-offs, fumed and fussed, and for three decades nearly single-handedly kept Philadelphia on the world’s culinary radar.
 
The toque has been passed. (As if we needed any more proof of the changing of the guard, Vetri wears a weathered orange kerchief around his shaved pate.) Italian is the new French. Informal is the new formal. The charred, homely polenta pot has replaced the polished cloche. Nowadays, when culinary culture vultures think of a world-class chef in Philadelphia, it’s Marc Vetri, a 42-year-old guy who really wanted to be a guitar hero. That dream took him for a time to California, where he started a band called Mild Mustard. He still strums nearly every day; lately, he’s been taking private lessons to learn the gypsy jazz style.
 
Vetri’s true talent turned out to be cooking. He spent youthful Sundays in South Philly helping his father’s Italian relatives cook dinner; his Jewish mother came from a restaurant family. He ended up in a Southern California kitchen rife with the trendy techniques of Wolfgang Puck, pre-conglomerate period. Vetri went about studying the trade the way any good and serious musician would, with lessons learned one-on-one, under a master teacher. He embarked on what he would later dub his voyaggio — a nearly two-year pilgrimage through Italy, where, working in the traditional indentured-servitude system called stage, he walked the stations of the culinary cross, learning pasta-making, butchering, roasting techniques and, yes, how to stir a bubbling pot of polenta. In 1998, he opened Vetri. And almost overnight, he became the biggest thing to happen to the Philadelphia food scene since Perrier.

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