If you hadn’t been to one of his four restaurants or never watched him as a celebrity chef on TV, you might not know the mild-mannered, soft-spoken man was a restaurant mogul, a revered restaurateur who can revitalize a neighborhood just by opening shop there. In addition to two new restaurant openings this year, he’ll launch a third this fall, setting his sights on another up-and-coming area he thinks will welcome his fine Italian cuisine. But unlike every eatery he’s opened so far, this one’s in SJ.
Marc Vetri. It’s a name synonymous with the Philly restaurant boom of the last 15 years, a name equal to celebrity chefs like Stephen Starr and José Garces. And this fall, Vetri will cross the Delaware to bring his well-regarded cuisine to the Moorestown Mall as part of its large-scale revitalization project.
The seasoned chef will replicate his acclaimed Osteria in his first introduction to the Southern New Jersey area. The traditional Italian restaurant, whose original location on North Broad Street in Philadelphia has garnered global praise since its opening in 2008, will mark Vetri’s first venture on this side of the Delaware. Unless of course, you’re talking about when he was a teen.
“My first restaurant job ever was at Downbeach Deli in Margate. I washed dishes when I was 15,” says Vetri, now 47.
Vetri spent the better part of his summers in the late ’80s working at Shore joints like The Waterfront and Maloneys. Even today, his favorite restaurant in SJ is Smitty’s Clam Bar in Somers Point.
“I used to love hanging out at Smitty’s,” he recalls. “I loved when it rained, because you could actually get a seat down there.”
It wasn’t long before young Vetri was in L.A. training under Wolfgang Puck and then moving to Italy, where he immersed himself in studying the art of Italian cooking. At 25, he traveled the countryside, cooking along the way and learning to butcher meat, make prosciutto and roll fresh pasta.
“That’s where I really sort of fell in love with cooking,” he says. “I had learned the basics here in America, and once I moved to Italy, I knew that was what I wanted to do. The experience put it into perspective and made me understand the real love of cooking, of knowing the ingredients and where they came from.”
He has embedded his passionate understanding of cooking into all his restaurant ventures. The first, simply called Vetri, opened in 1998 in Center City Philadelphia. Within two years, the up-and-coming chef was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Ten Best New Chefs.” The success started a stream of new ventures – and accolades.
“I was happy with my 30 seats, happy just cooking on the line, working and loving life,” he says. “Vetri had always been an evolution. When we finally tried to open the second one, we obviously had the chef and had everything kind of ready for it. That one opened up the floodgates so to speak. We started to realize, ‘Wow, this is sort of fun.’ We just went with it. It was never a planned expansion.”
And yet the expansion continued. In 2007, Osteria opened just north of Center City and was nominated for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant one year later. Amis opened on Philly’s Washington Square in 2010, and last year Vetri introduced Alla Spina just around the corner from Osteria.
This summer, he’s been putting finishing touches on Pizzeria Vetri, slated to open soon at 19th and Callowhill. And earlier this summer, the untiring chef inked a deal to open The Brig, an eatery at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. That will open in 2014. But first, he’ll bring Osteria to SJ.
“I know a lot of folks who live in Moorestown, Voorhees and Cherry Hill. A lot of them are customers of ours now. People tell us, ‘Oh my God, we love it here. We wish we could get here more, but it’s a little far for us.’ They plan events in their own area, which we understand. When we open up there, I imagine we’re going to be making a lot of folks very happy.”
Vetri says the menu and décor will be modeled after his Philadelphia location, designed to replicate a rustic farmhouse and offering thin-crust pizzas, homemade pastas, and wood-grilled meats and fish. “It’s a great concept and a great model,” he says. “It just works.”
The Vetri Brand
It could be that the moon and stars are aligning at just the right time for this talented chef: popular culture is taking a liking to chefs just as Vetri sits on a much-loved restaurant empire. So the transition to ventures outside the kitchen has come easily for Vetri and has landed him a few television appearances and a major publishing deal.
Set to release his third book in 2015, Vetri has already penned “Rustic Italian Food” and “Il Viaggio Di Vetri: A Culinary Journey.” When it comes to writing books, he says, “It’s not my favorite thing. I like writing, but the whole cookbook thing is a little tedious. It’s not that bad, but I really love writing articles.”
Vetri speaks with the same candor on the smattering of television appearances that have exposed him to audiences across the country.
Last December, Vetri had a guest appearance on The Travel Channel’s “The Layover” with Anthony Bourdain. Cooking for Bourdain at Amis, Vetri appeared on the show talking shop with the colorful host before the two headed to the private bar “The Pen and Pencil Club.” There, Vetri, Bourdain and Michael Solomonov, chef/owner of Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, played rock-paper-scissors to see who would drink a shot of hot dog water. Bourdain lost.
Vetri also appeared on “Iron Chef” in 2010, besting Cleveland restaurateur Michael Symon in a Northern Italian throwdown. (The secret ingredient was veal, and Vetri’s winning dishes were vitello tonnato, veal Milanese, pappardelle with veal ragù, veal tortellini and veal tenderloin seared and served on hot stones. Judge Donatella Arpaia said his vitello tonnato was the best she’s ever had – in Italy or anywhere.)
But don’t expect to see Vetri as a TV regular any time soon. “I like it,” he says, “but do I wanna have my own television show? No, that’s definitely not me. But every now and then, doing a segment is fun.”
The Vetri Foundation
Along with success, Vetri will tell you, comes a responsibility to give back. For eight years, Vetri has organized The Annual Great Chefs event, which brings in chefs from around the world to prepare food for guests. This year’s event saw more than 1,200 people cram into Urban Outfitters’ headquarters for some gourmet bites from featured chefs like José Garces and Marco Rossi, who flew in from Bergamo, Italy. The event’s silent auction featured a six-person trip to Italy with Vetri and his business partner, chef Jeff Michaud, which went for $26,000. In all, the evening raised over $1 million for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.
Vetri’s own nonprofit, The Vetri Foundation for Children, has taken on the noble task of fighting the childhood obesity epidemic. Its unique program, Eatiquette, has brought healthy foods and the concept of family-style dining to five Philadelphia charter schools.
Students in the program have lunch, served family-style, at round tables so they can pass food and hold conversations with each other. The children take turns serving as the day’s table captain, setting the table beforehand and bringing food to the table. Students use real plates and silverware (not plastic), and before every meal, they hear about the day’s menu from the chef – one with experience working in restaurants, not cafeterias. Sample selections include primavera pasta with a sauce made of roasted and pureed sweet potatoes or baked ziti with a side of roasted fennel salad and, for dessert, cinnamon-apple rice pudding.
“We started the Vetri Foundation to help children understand the connection between healthy eating and healthy living,” Vetri says. “Family-style eating plays an important role in that. They are interacting with each other, laughing. They don’t even realize that they’re eating healthy. Community builds confidence. If they are able to take that into their homes and hold onto that, and then take that into their lives, they’re going to be stronger for it, healthier and more successful. Then they will be the ones who are going to be able to give back.”
The Vetri Family
That family-style dining Vetri values so much was instilled in him by his parents, who took him on Sundays to his grandparents’ South Philadelphia home for traditional Italian meals. The seasoned chef says he learned much standing at his grandmother’s side helping her prepare the family’s dinners.
Today, Vetri enjoys his wife Megan’s cooking at home, when he can sit down with her and their two young sons and daughter for dinner. “Megan makes dinner most weekdays,” he says.
But on the weekends, Vetri does much of the cooking at home, especially since deciding to take weekends off when his daughter was born three years ago. That hard-won free time gives him a chance to pursue other pleasures, like yoga, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and guitar.
But come fall, the award-winning chef will probably end up spending some weekends in Moorestown greeting new customers and even plating a few specials. He sees the new restaurant as another golden opportunity for his well-established restaurant empire.
“We’re kind of known for heading into up-and-coming areas and being the catalyst for growth,” he says. “That’s what we did with the original Osteria, and I think that’s what we’re doing in Moorestown. I think it’s just one of those awesome opportunities.
“This will be the same as all the other restaurants,” he adds. “And I’ll be there a lot. We are very hands-on.”
Dave Tomar contributed to this article.