The Birth of Vetri

The restaurant changed the game for Philly’s food scene. On the 20th anniversary of Vetri’s opening, one of its co-founders looks back on how it all came to be.

vetri marc jeff benjamin philadelphia

Clockwise from top left: Early staffers Michael Solomonov, Dionicio Jiminez, Marc Vetri and Joe Baldino; Sal and Marc Vetri; Marc outside 1312 Spruce Street; Jeff Benjamin, Marc, Melissa Benjamin (obscured), James Burke and Chip Roman. Center: Jeff and Marc. | Provided by Jeff Benjamin and Marc Vetri.

At the end of 1993, I was 23 years old, working for Aramark as a corporate food service director, and living on Long Island. Fortunately, I had saved up enough money to move to Manhattan, so I put the word out to my small network of friends and colleagues that I needed someplace to live. As soon as my pal Lou Weiss heard I was looking, he called to say his roommate was moving out and his spot was mine if I wanted it. His apartment was on the East Side, not far from the Citibank headquarters on Park Avenue to which I’d recently been transferred, making it an easy decision.

Lou was a Penn graduate and had been in New York for a couple years. He was a larger-than-life character and the definitive party-starter, and he had already established a wide network of friends in town. In addition to hanging out with our New York group, Lou introduced me to his friends from Philly. One such character was aspiring filmmaker and then-bartender Adam Vetri.

Adam grew up outside Philadelphia but was now living in Manhattan; due to our hospitality-industry work hours, we both had afternoons free. We also both played golf and would often hop on the subway at Times Square, bags in tow, and take the 1 train up to the Bronx to play a quick nine at Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course, the oldest public links in the United States.

One afternoon while we were standing on the tee box overlooking the Manhattan skyline, he mentioned that his brother was moving back to the States from Italy.

“I had no idea you had a brother,” I said. “What’s he doing in Italy?”

“Oh, Marc’s been knocking around over there for a few years now. He’s sort of working his way through the country, mostly up north, and honing his skills as a chef.”

Aha! Now I knew why he brought it up; he wanted me to get his brother a job. I was pretty sure a vagabond chef fresh off bopping around Italy for a few years wasn’t going to be a good fit for corporate dining. But I played along.

“You know,” I said, trying to sound noncommittal, “I meet a lot of people who say they’re chefs because they’re good with food, but in my business, there’s more to it than that. There’s management, budgeting — you know, the back-end stuff. I could probably help him if he’s got that kind of exper—”

Adam laughed and cut me off. “No, man, he already has a job lined up at a place on the Upper East Side. I just thought you two should meet sometime. He really is an awesome chef and has a lot of good business ideas.”

Phew. Dodged a bullet.

Marc did move to Manhattan shortly after that and got right to work in the New York food scene. From time to time, he’d show up on his rollerblades late at night to catch the tail end of whatever high jinks Adam and I were up to. Marc was always working crazy hours, but it soon paid off.

In 1997, Bella Blu, under Marc’s direction as executive chef, received a highly coveted callout in New York magazine. I started taking dates there, and he’d make me look good. Even though there were way more first dates than second, I didn’t care. I was thrilled to be living in Manhattan as a young, single professional and took full advantage of all the excitement and opportunity that offered. Having a new acquaintance like Marc didn’t hurt.

We were a couple months removed from the devastating news that my father had been diagnosed with a rare brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme. The ensuing surgery left him quite debilitated, and he was now beginning the long road to recovery, which included an aggressive course of rehab. Once Dad’s rehab from brain surgery was under way, I decided it was time to do a little life rehab of my own. I was starting to lose interest in the corporate dining world and felt like I had done everything I’d set out to do in that space. I desperately needed to get off my ass and make something happen to pursue my dream of becoming a restaurateur.

Then, as if by divine intervention, a life-changing opportunity arose out of the blue. Or was it the green?

One afternoon, after putting out on the ninth hole at Van Cortlandt, my golf buddy Adam made me a proposition that would alter the course of my life in ways I could never have imagined. And, looking back, if I had the chance to do it all again, I’d say without hesitation, “No fucking chance!”

Adam had just gotten funding for a film he was producing and said my apartment would make the perfect set for the main character’s digs. He insisted it would be fun and easy and that they’d be in and out in a few days. We wouldn’t even notice they were there, he said.

Word to the wise: If a filmmaker ever asks to use your apartment for a location shoot, the correct answer is always “NO!!!”

They won’t be in and out in a few days. They’ll break things and make things disappear. They’ll smoke in your smokeless home and put their cigars out on the “ashtray” otherwise known as your “sofa.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t know anyone who had lent an apartment to a filmmaker before, and I mistakenly thought it sounded like fun. So I said yes.

When you’re an independent filmmaker, you need to scratch and claw and ask favors and cut corners wherever possible. And when it came to hiring craft services to feed his cast and crew, Adam had to look no further than his own brother Marc.

While I was friendly with Marc from our infrequent hangout sessions in the past few years, I wouldn’t say I knew much about him besides that he was a cool dude and a great chef. But during the weeks of filming, we gradually realized just how much we had in common career-wise.

Once filming started each morning, Marc would clear out of my apartment with his “assistant” — a.k.a. his father, Sal — and hang out on the corner till lunch. Sal Vetri is one of the great characters you’ll ever meet, straight out of central casting as the archetypal South Philly Italian. He was a street-smart kid who parlayed his intelligence and work ethic into a chain of more than 20 jewelry stores, which he eventually sold. Now retired, he was spending time with his sons, watching them build their careers while providing input and inspiration.

One morning, as the film crew concocted new and exciting ways to destroy my apartment, I met Marc and Sal on the corner for a cup of coffee. Not long after I joined them, I looked at my watch and mentioned that I had to leave for work.

“What was that?” Sal asked.

“What was what?”

“That face. You just winced when you said you had to get to work.”

I laughed and said, “Well, I guess you could say work just isn’t working out for me anymore. It feels like I hit a wall in corporate dining.”

“You want to take over craft services for my brother instead?” Marc joked.

“Nah,” I replied, “but I do want to do something different. I’ve been thinking of opening my own place for years and just need to figure something out.”

“I hear ya,” Marc said. “I’ve been thinking the same thing for a long time now.”

He had no further details, just the desire. Sal had plenty to say to both of us about the matter, all of it encouraging us to take action. But we weren’t going to solve world peace that morning, so I concluded the conversation by saying, “If one of us decides to pull the trigger, he should call the other one and we’ll do it together.”

“Deal,” Marc replied, consummating it with a high five.

While the conversation got my blood swirling, I thought of it less as an action step and more as a pipe dream. My rational left brain assumed that Marc and I would both be slogging through the status quo for the foreseeable future.

A couple weeks later, I was reading the industry magazine Food Arts when I came across the section “Front Burner,” which has new restaurant announcements. And right there in black and white was a small item that said hometown boy Marc Vetri was seen scouting locations in Center City Philadelphia. The next morning on set (i.e., in my kitchen), I asked him about it, jokingly.

“What the fuck?” I said with a smile. “I saw the notice in Food Arts that you’re scouting locations in Philly.”

He laughed it off. “Yeah, they called and asked, so I told them. I don’t know who tipped them off.”

“Well it wasn’t me, because you forgot to let me know!”

“Wait. Would you seriously consider moving to Philly? I assumed you’d only be in on something in Manhattan.”

“Sure I’m serious. Why not? I’ve got nothing keeping me here.”

In the back of my mind, I quickly questioned myself: Nothing? Really? And what do you call that ailing father of yours?

Still, it was far from a done deal.

“Okay, but I’ve got to be honest with you,” Marc said. “I’ve been talking to a guy I know from Italy, Roberto. I want him to run the front of the house. But if he says no, we should talk.”

“No worries,” I said with a laugh. “If it doesn’t work out with him, call me. And if it does, invite me to the opening.”

I really didn’t think anything of it and decided to ramp up my search for other avenues and opportunities. Two weeks later, though, Marc called back.

“Roberto turned me down,” he said. “Are you in?”

Despite my excitement, I didn’t fully commit on the spot but rather agreed to travel to Philly and check it out.

“Perfect,” Marc said. “Come to Philly next weekend and I’ll show you the place I found. If you like it, we can work something out. Sound good?”

It actually sounded great. Neither of us knew how to open a restaurant, but did that really matter? I knew Marc was an awesome chef, and I knew I could deliver impeccable service, and by then, we both had solid experience on the business end. This might actually work.

So on July 4, 1998, I visited Philadelphia for only the second time in my life. I remembered thinking it was a cool city the first time through, and my memory served me correctly. I wandered around Center City for a while before making my way to the address Marc had given me. I was taken aback at first by the quaint little townhouse that stood in the middle of a mostly residential block. But as unassuming as it was, 1312 Spruce Street had a remarkable culinary past, including as the original home of Le Bec-Fin, one of America’s finest French restaurants.

If the outside of the building was unassuming, the inside was downright unappealing! It was in serious disrepair from floor to ceiling and from front to back. I questioned why I was even there for a moment, but my dismay was short-lived when Marc started painting the picture of what it would look like after we did renovations. His confidence, creativity and commitment told my gut he was going to make this happen. It just felt right.

I returned to New York with a big decision to make. Marc had a decision to make, too. All signs pointed to us joining forces, but as Yogi Berra said, it ain’t over till it’s over. In retrospect, it’s funny that the first time I heard Marc’s name, when Adam mentioned he was returning from Italy, I blew him off as unqualified. And when Marc first considered leasing a restaurant space in Philly, he blew me off for a guy named Roberto. But a few days after my trip to Philly, he called me up.

“So hey, what are you thinking?” Marc asked.

“I love your vision, love the space, and I’d really like to be part of this.”

“That’s great news!” Marc said. “The bad news is, I can’t pay you very much, and I can’t guarantee, well, anything, really. I can’t even set up company health insurance yet. So … are you still with me?”

“Where do I sign?”

And that was that. We worked out a few more business details, but it was all very casual and uncomplicated. I explained Dad’s situation to Marc, including that I’d have to travel back and forth to New York on both a regular and an on-call basis, and he was great with all of it. By now I had left Aramark and was working for a smaller food contracting firm called Restaurant Associates. I gave my notice of resignation and said sayonara to the world of corporate dining, hopefully forever.

By the first week of August 1998, Marc and I were spending our days like Daniel-san from Karate Kid, sanding and painting for all we were worth until we were dripping with sweat. In short order, I realized I had partnered with a guy who had the most ferocious work ethic I’d ever seen. And on the days when his 60-something father Sal would join us, I would see where he got it. Besides all the manual labor we both did, Marc had a whole host of responsibilities to get the back of the house ready, and I had to do the same for the front.

The workload kicked my ass day in and day out, but I embraced this new venture like nothing I ever had before. Luckily, by the time my head hit the pillow at night, I had no energy left to dwell on everything I was leaving behind.

For his part, Dad could not have been more thrilled for me. While it would have been nice to start a business closer to home, this was the opportunity that presented itself.

Day by day, Marc and I could see the restaurant shaping up, and in early September, we made the announcement: “Vetri” would open its doors for business on Tuesday, September 22, 1998.

All the work that Marc, Sal and I put in over the summer turned the once-decrepit space into a quaint 38-seat Italian dining room. As great as the place looked, I was nervous as hell about the opening. For one brief moment, I experienced a sense of reservation, and maybe even regret.

What the fuck am I doing? I thought.

Opening night at Vetri went off without a hitch. There were plenty of friends and family to cheer us on, plus a few local celebrities to help make the scene — not to mention the most important dignitaries of all, our first paying customers. We were off and running.

Like most restaurants, though, while we packed them in for a few weeks, the novelty then wore off, and the crowds died down. While weekends were always busy, many weeknights were frightfully slow. We had no money to advertise and instead relied solely on word of mouth. Half the time, Marc and I would send home most of our staff of six and just sit there in the dining room waiting for customers, with me drinking bourbon while he played guitar. We would often talk about the future and our prospects, with Marc never wavering in his assurance that we’d make it. In the back of my mind, though, I kept thinking: A year from now, I’ll be back in New York.

One memorable evening, we had sent everyone home due to the typical lack of customers, compounded by a snowstorm. We figured we’d hang out until eight or nine o’clock before closing up shop, just in case anyone did come by. Marc was alone up front, strumming to himself, when a couple popped their heads in the door and asked, “Are you open?”

He jumped right up, welcomed them with gusto, and then got me to take care of them up front while he fired up the kitchen. As we got their meal going, another couple popped their snow-covered heads in the door the same way, and we welcomed them right in, too. Four more couples followed within a half hour, and just like that, we were swamped!

Marc and I both did it all that night, from cooking to pouring wine to waiting tables to bussing trays to washing dishes to whatever else was needed. It was easily the worst night of service Vetri customers have ever received, but our guests loved every minute of it. They understood our situation, so the energy in the room was infused with a sense of camaraderie. When it was time for our diners to leave, the storm had dumped so much snow in the city that taxis were no longer available. So in addition to every other hat Marc wore that night, he put on one more: cabbie. He pulled his four-wheel-drive Ford pickup truck around to the front of the restaurant and started driving our customers to their destinations. He must have made three different trips, but it was worth it. We got some great word-of-mouth out of it, not to mention repeat business from several of the parties. In fact, one of the couples have been regulars ever since.

About three months after the opening, we got our first big break. The Inquirer food critic came in for dinner, unbeknownst to us, and a few days later, he wrote a glowing review of Vetri. Business took off immediately. It didn’t hurt that within our first year, Food & Wine would name Marc one of America’s Top 10 New Chefs of 1999. That thrust us right into the stratosphere, and we’ve never looked back.

Published as “The Birth of Vetri” in the October 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.