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?

“DUDE. I AM so going to get you a cape!”
It’s around midnight, and a noisy, cresting Saturday swell of drinkers in Pub & Kitchen has made the place far more pub than kitchen. Television producer Adam Vetri looked weary and distracted a little while ago, having flown a red-eye from Los Angeles to arrive early enough for his nephew’s bar mitzvah at Beth Sholom in Elkins Park. He socialized through a day of family gatherings, then stopped for dinner at Osteria, one of Philly’s best and most popular Italian restaurants. He has now landed here, for a nightcap with the guy who more than a few people think is one of the best chefs in this country: his older brother Marc. There’s no better source of second wind than a chance to tease your older brother.
The cape Adam is talking about is the long, shiny kind superheroes wear. “And it’ll have a big ‘P’ on the back,” he says, then imitates a proud and relieved citizen: “Look, it’s Polenta Man!”
Marc Vetri is wearing some weariness himself. His normally bright, wide eyes are sinking into furrowed dark crevasses that separate his stubble-covered cranium from his stubble-covered face. He got up early for the bar mitzvah, too — and later donned his chef’s togs, spending the afternoon and evening shuttling between his famous, high-end intimate-townhouse eatery, Vetri, and his much bigger and more bustling rustic-industro second restaurant, Osteria. He’s fed almost 400 people today, everything from sea bass crudo to wood-smoked and braised baby goat to pizza with chickpeas, broccoli and olives. That could wear a guy out. But right now, mostly, he’s tired of being teased.
“Polenta Man,” Marc Vetri repeats. “I get it. Yeah, yeah, yeah — funny.” He’s hunched a little in his seat, gripping the shank of one of those fancy English bottled beers whose names sound like apothecary shops from Dickens novels. The chef is dressed like an off-duty artisan: work boots, heavy wool Italian ski pants with a gangster-ish chalk stripe. A ribbed snowboarding sweater festooned with Italian logos hugs his torso, which is trim and fit from near-daily sessions of Ashtanga yoga and regular pickup basketball games at the Sporting Club.
The man sitting in this crowded bar tonight isn’t really Polenta Man, but rather mild-mannered Marc Vetri.
“Polenta Man” is, in reality, a portrait of Vetri painted on the west wall of the three-story Spruce Street townhouse that is home to Vetri, the narrow, 10-table dining room that has been anointed by the scribbling fooderati as either on or atop the short list for best Italian restaurant in America. (See GQ, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, New York Times, et al.) Just a few days ago, an artist employed by the Mural Arts Program put the finishing touches on the colorful landscape of Tuscan hills, vineyards and farms that slopes down the wall to a foreground focused on a terrace teeming with feasting diners and drinkers. As an afterthought, off to the right, back toward the service entrance to the small and narrow kitchen where the chef has earned so many kudos, the artist painted Vetri himself, a little larger than life-size, hovering alone, dressed in his kitchen whites, seeming to float toward those happy diners in the main mural, bringing to the feast … a big copper pot of polenta.