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?

REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER Eric Blumenfeld is all about the windows. Vetri and Benjamin are scanning a half-dozen: tall, bright Palladian windows that offer a view of the somewhat desolate corner of South Broad Street and Washington Avenue. The developer is giving the restaurateurs and their favorite contractor, a bemused Israeli named Ofer Shlomo, a sales pitch for the big, stripped-to-the-concrete ground-floor space of the Marine Club. The five-story Greek Revival building was built in 1904 to house a military quartermaster’s unit, was converted to rental apartments in the early ’80s, and is now being marketed by Blumenfeld for condos. “Look at that, look at those windows,” he says. “Aren’t they great? Isn’t this a perfect space? I think it might be even better than Osteria.”

Blumenfeld was the first successful suitor in a long line of smitten entrepreneurs who tried to seduce Vetri and Benjamin into partnership, to coax them from their tiny townhouse to start a new restaurant big enough to feed more people than, say, could fit into the Phillies dugout. Stephen Starr came calling several times. Tony Goldman offered to move Vetri — lock, stock and cappuccino machine — into one of his buildings. There were opportunities in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The answer was always no. Vetri’s father, who made a good living running a string of costume jewelry stores, drilled one thing into him: Work for yourself, work for yourself, work for yourself.

Blumenfeld eventually got the Vetri guys to open Osteria in his 640 North Broad Street lofts by laying out a lot of money with no strings. “It would have been too much money for me,” Vetri says. “It’s a big place. It took, like, a million and a half dollars.” (By contrast, he and Benjamin started Vetri with around $200,000, much of it from a small business loan.) “I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But Eric said, ‘For you, Marc, I would do anything.’ So I basically made him eat those words.”

Vetri thought that for staking the restaurant, Blumenfeld would want a percentage. But Blumenfeld demurred. What he wanted — and what he got with the opening of Osteria — was the kind of buzz that the owner of an apartment building in the urban hinterlands could never buy. When the ultimate condo conversion comes, who knows how many hundreds of thousands of dollars a hot restaurant in the building could add to sale prices?

So it’s hardly surprising that Blumenfeld would like to bottle that vintage of lightning again. As the sinking afternoon sun streams through those beautiful windows, he leads the restaurateurs around his big, bare space, promising changes as needed — whatever it takes. Everyone parts with noncommittal hugs. But Vetri might extend the embrace if Blumenfeld offers the same incentives he did with Osteria.

“Marc understands what he wants and knows his value,” Blumenfeld tells me afterward. “I think I understand Marc and he understands me. Everybody has his different motives here. I’m trying to build a neighborhood. … He’s trying to continue his empire.”