The Revisit: Vetri

Many years later, as I faced the $650 bill for a dinner date at Vetri, I would remember the distant potato patch in Tuscany where I dug graves for three bleating, healthy goats. At that time, I was living on a family farm in the Maremma hills, happy to have found work in exchange for meals and the shelter of what, until my friend and I spent our first day converting it for human habitation, had been a rabbit coop. In the mornings we watered plants and trees from buckets (there was only limited irrigation) in anticipation of the midday summer heat. In the afternoons we weeded zucchini rows, snaked our bodies across the ant-ridden limbs of fig trees to cull the soft, ripe fruits from the burst ones, and picked basil to make pesto for dinner. The farmer with whom we had negotiated this arrangement sweetened the deal by finding us cash-under-the-table work pruning olive trees for neighboring landholders. This enabled me to stave off penury, and my friend to slowly pull himself out of it.

This was not the first thing that came to mind as I tried to make sense of what I had just spent on dinner. That would have been my credit limit, which proved insufficient to cover the cost. Earlier in the day I’d used my Visa card to replace a broken washing machine. Dinner turned out to be pricier than the appliance. But that was nobody’s fault but mine (a dinner for two, plus wine, plus tip—and fortunately my wife was on hand to play sugar mama). The anticipatory graves for those perfectly healthy goats soon rose above the busted limit in my thinking, though. I’ll try to explain why. But first, a few words about dinner.

There had been almond tortellini of astonishing delicacy and flavor, like marzipan minus the sugar wrapped in pasta as thin as tissue paper, the concentrated essence of almond blooming on the tongue at the same pace with which its subtle truffle sauce receded. Nantucket Bay scallops came in crudo form—daring, in its own way, to opt for these diminutive specimens over their more highly sought day-boat cousins, but also delicious. In fact, more delicious than I knew a bay scallop could be. There were tufts of ethereal fettuccine (Marc Vetri and his supporting chefs must roll their yolk-rich sheets of pasta to a state of near-transparency) whose cocoa-sprinkled snags sheltered bits of boar ragu. Pappardelle became a beribboned canvas for something like a Vulcan mind-meld of venison ragu and Bartlett pears. It seemed as though only one time in a hundred could those flavors penetrate into one another so sublimely, but the fact is that at this restaurant, it’s more likely a routine occurrence. It was easier to imagine the nightly rendition of a crepe stuffed with 10-hour caramelized onions of ungodly depth and sweetness—but I don’t have much confidence I could achieve it in my own kitchen.

Not every dish inspired amazement: The rest were merely excellent. Take the plancha-seared fillet of red mullet, as fresh an example as I’ve ever had this far from the fish’s Mediterranean swimming grounds. Or the tender medallions of Texas antelope with cubes of Delicata squash and a sauce that expressed the fruit and soul of Amarone della Valpolicella as exquisitely as the accompanying glass of Tezza’s 2004 vintage. Sins of excess obscure many of my less recent memories, but the wine pairings at Vetri are probably the most skillfully chosen and consistently spot-on that I’ve ever encountered in a multi-course tasting menu. This was true from the tar-and-roses highlight of a 2004 barolo right up through dessert, in which the deceptively light chocolate polenta soufflé and a cranberry clafouti with Campari-kissed sorbetto arrived alongside two moscatos, one off-dry and effervescent, the other sweet and still.

But for all that—and the suave service, and the graceful pacing, and the warmth of this venerable rowhouse—the question that hung in both our mouths as we walked out onto Spruce Street was whether any meal, anywhere, no matter how good, can ever justify a $650 expenditure. For us, the answer is an unequivocal no. It probably would be no at half that amount. Not so long as we have children to school and clothe. Not so long as there are children in our city and neighborhood who want for basic nutrition. Not so long as, according to the Department of Labor, the average American takes 20 full days to spend $335 on food. Of course, that argument is as facile as it is obvious. And it’s incomplete. Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin are alive to the plight of poor and sick children, and have founded a charity that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for them. At a time when six out of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America are to be found in the restaurant business (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics), Vetri is probably one of the few places where a table busser can earn something close to a living wage—assuming that front-line servers tip them out in proportion to the gratuities they collect. So the high cost of dinner at Vetri supports more than luxury and hedonism.

And at any rate, the fact that $650 exceeds my limit for a dinner date may say more about me than it does about the experience of eating at Vetri, and why that experience might justify the expense for someone else—even someone in the proverbial 99 percent.

Which is why I started to think about digging graves for those goats.

It was 1998. I’d been working on the farm for about a month by that time, and could well have continued longer—as my friend did—had I not been gone from home for a year already.

It was honest work in a beautiful place. We ate straightforward but terrific food. It was simple and flavorful and authentic, and it could hardly have been otherwise, given the combination of the season’s bounty and the modesty of this farmer’s means. On occasion, we would walk across the valley to share a meal with another family—one of those rambling affairs romanticized in every 10th page of Bon Appetit, where a few simple tables are arranged into a single long one and you find yourself eating olives and bread and salumi next to an impossibly supple woman wearing a sundress and smiling mysteriously at her grandfather’s wisecracks.

And then our farmer decided he’d had enough of his goats and told us to start digging their graves once we’d harvested all the potatoes from the patch where he wanted them. It was a hard thing to understand. There was nothing wrong with these goats. Why wouldn’t he just sell them? We never figured this out. He was an unusual man. But still, it was even harder to figure out why, if he was bent on killing them, he wouldn’t take them to a slaughterhouse or a butcher. Burying them seemed like wanton wastefulness.

As the job of digging stretched over several afternoons, it seemed more and more strange. One evening, soon after we finished, the farmer took his wife and their young son on an unprecedented dinner away from the house, leaving us on our own there with a not-too-modest stash of his homegrown marijuana, and our confusion blossomed into paranoia. No one would just bury perfectly normal goats, we decided. We’ve been fools! Those graves are for us!

Yet they were indeed for the goats—though by the time they were dispatched, I’d moved along, and my friend faced the squealing spectacle alone. And now, looking back on it, what’s most striking about the manner of their disposal is how consistent it was with our diet in that place.

From afar, we like to imagine the rustic cuisines of Old Europe as a smorgasbord of milk-braised pork shoulders and truffled tortellini and slow-cooked goat, like the one that comes wrapped in the crispy parchment of its own skin over a mound of fresh-milled polenta at Vetri. But la cocina povera—at least as I experienced it 15 years ago in the countryside below a seldom-visited fortified hill town in Tuscany (and, years before that, in another out-of-the-way place in a small suburb in northwestern France)—is rarely so grand. It bears closer relation to the raw vegetables and balsamic vinaigrette with which our meal at Vetri began. It is wine thinned with water, olives in a chipped bowl, pasta with pesto, eggs with a couple ounces of guanciale, and the soulfulness of sating a complex hunger with simple components.

Vetri has, at one time or another, been credited with cooking the best Italian food on the East Coast or the best Italian food in America. That may or may not be so. What seems more relevant—and what gets closer to the question of the restaurant’s value—is that this food is probably better than 99 percent of what’s eaten in Italy. (Even when I traveled there in far higher style than my stint as a farmhand, I don’t believe I ever encountered better cooking.) Yet it surpasses all those meals not by departing from the rustic underpinnings of classic Italian food (via sous-vide machinery or liquid nitrogen or gels concocted with agar agar), but by honoring them as closely as befits a culture where something like pit-roasted baby goat is a production so involved (and so demanding of a celebratory context) that the man I worked for could scarcely envision it.

I have trouble seeing myself returning to Vetri for another dinner so extravagant and expensive. But having been, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Marc Vetri had been up in the Maremma hills when a certain farmer decided time was up for the three goats in his care. It is a lovely thing to think about: long tables propped on grass, water fetched from the nearest well, and such a mound of meat that it would have demanded the presence of every person in that small valley to break bread for a meal whose memory would last a long, long time.