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?

IS POLENTA MAN pursuing an empire?

It’s easy to understand the motivation — or, more accurately, the temptation. Despite the current recession, these are what might be called the, uh, salad days for chefs. They battle like gladiators on television. They get big advances for books. There are movies about chefs in love and lovable rodents who want nothing more than to run a kitchen. The virus of celebrity chefdom is so strong that you can now pretend you’re dining on Wolfgang Puck’s famous food in a dingy concourse at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

At first glance, Marc Vetri would seem a perfect candidate to be the nation’s next celebrity chef-entrepreneur. He’s a good-looking guy who earned a degree in marketing and finance at Drexel before leaving with his guitar for Los Angeles. Once he was there, Benjamin once told me, “He really wanted to be a rock star.” And he has become a star.

“A lot of people have become obsessive about food and restaurants,” says Frank Bruni, the New York Times food critic who made a rare excursion out of Manhattan to cover Osteria and Vetri (lukewarm and high praise, respectively). “As that’s happened, gems around the country that in another era might not have gotten any notice have rocketed to people’s attention.”

The most obvious explanation of why Marc Vetri has been slow to capitalize on his growing fame would seem to be his stutter. He’s had it since he was a kid, been embarrassed by it and abused for it, been treated for it in various ways, and now just seems to deal with it. “I have not had an offer to do a food show,” he says. “The stutter definitely hinders me in that. But even if I spoke fluently, I don’t know that I’d want a television show.” He readily walks around the dining rooms of his two restaurants, chatting and schmoozing; since his posh first cookbook, Il Viaggio Di Vetri, was published last fall, he’s done appearances to promote it.

“I don’t say no to things,” he says. “I go up onstage and I talk and I stutter. If people are there to listen to how I’m actually speaking, they’re there for the wrong reasons, I guess.”