AT THE STROKE of noon, the partners grab their coats and trundle downstairs, passing through the quiet and disheveled dining room, where a pretty hostess is confirming reservations. They push into their famed kitchen, where Vetri stops to confer with Brad Spence, his chef de cuisine, the first he has ever trusted to run his namesake restaurant. (Jeff Michaud, who went through an Italian apprenticeship similar to Vetri’s, is the chef and partner at Osteria.) Spence is a friendly guy whose red hair and moderate girth make him seem like a younger, less flashy sibling of Mario Batali. (Vetri met Batali more than a decade ago, when both were young up-and-coming chefs in New York. He’s appeared on Batali’s Food Network show, and recently a picture of him with Batali sat in his kitchen, on a shelf between the stoves and the credit-card machine. “Wow,” he said when he showed it to me. “Look how drunk we look.”) Spence worked a while in a Manhattan satellite of the Batali universe, then returned to be near his family in South Jersey. Vetri grabbed him.
“He’s a chef’s chef,” Vetri says of Spence. “He likes the same flavors that I like. He understands the same food that I like. We have the same philosophies about food.”
Later, I asked Vetri to explain his philosophy of food. He e-mailed me about taking research trips to Italy, eating at Michelin-rated restaurants. But then he wrote, “We go to my friend’s house up in the mountains, and we smell wood burning on the way up. His mother is out in the field picking wild greens, his brother is jarring fruit so it lasts until next season, and his father is watching the lamb leg he had on the spit since the morning. There are vegetables marinating, salumi being sliced, and fruit from the trees roasting in the oven in the form of a cake or pie. The cafe moka pot is filled and ready to be put on the fire after lunch, the wine is opened and ready to be poured, and the stash of grappa is unlocked, so we know it’s going to be used. We laugh, drink, eat, reminisce, tell stories and carve memories in our minds that will last a lifetime. Somehow, we forget about the meals and ideas we learned at the Michelin-starred restaurants and say to ourselves on the plane home, ‘That could have been the best meal of my life.’”
All of which sounds fantastic. But how do you recreate that feeling for a table of four at Vetri, which is also likely to recall the check for $700 at the end of the meal? “The more I think about it,” Vetri says to me later, “the more the end result — the spinach gnocchi, for example — is nothing without the experience I went through to learn how to make it, to stick it out there for you. My thinking is that you have to be able to taste that when you eat. Everything derived from an experience, the heart and soul of the food. Without that, the dish means nothing.”