Vetri Cucina’s Marc Vetri, who ventured to South Philadelphia to open his most recent Italian restaurant, Fiorella, has gone just a bit farther afield for his next one:
To Kyoto, Japan.
Mr. Maurice’s Italian is due to soft-open on June 11 in the Ace Hotel, the trendy chain’s first location in Asia. Vetri, who visited Japan in January, will be joined in the project by American chefs Naomi Pomeroy and Wes Avila, who will open complementary restaurants.
The menu includes pizza, pork chop Parmesan, rigatoni with chicken liver ragu, and other homey Italian American offerings. Architect Kengo Kuma and Commune Design has set up Mr. Maurice’s with a 96-seat dining room with a mid-century look as well as a rooftop bar seating 74 people.
The name is a tribute to Maurice’s, his grandfather’s restaurant from the 1950s and 1960s, now a private home at 211 S. Quince St., down the alley from the Forrest Theatre and a cannoli’s throw from Vetri Cucina. Vetri said the “Mr.” was inspired by the long-running East Passyunk trattoria Mr. Martino’s.
Vetri said he was approached for a solo deal — apart from longtime business partner Jeff Benjamin — about six months ago. Unlike the Vetri Cucina restaurants in Philadelphia and Las Vegas, which the men own, Vetri only oversees the food at Mr. Maurice’s.
“It sounded like fun,” said Vetri, who at 53 appears to be enjoying a new stage of his career, having divested himself of the collection of restaurants that he and Benjamin sold to Urban Outfitters nearly five years ago and focusing instead on projects that have more personal meaning: the Vetri Cucinas, Fiorella, his stake in the boutique butcher Primal Supply, and his role as chef of the private Fitler Club in Center City. He’s also a nominee for the James Beard Award for best restaurateur. Lately, like every other restaurateur, he is trying to get his dining rooms open while he has been offering takeout from Fiorella.
But he can’t be everywhere. After drawing up ideas for the Kyoto restaurant, and selecting the name, Vetri had to tap a chef to send over to guide the restaurant’s development.
That would be Zach Kelberman, 21, who started working at Vetri Cucina on Spruce Street two years ago after he gave up business school in Indiana, moved back to the Philadelphia area, and knocked on the restaurant’s kitchen door seeking a job.
Kelberman, who like Vetri grew up in Montgomery County, started working in kitchens at age 14 at Bocelli in Gwynedd Valley and by Vetri’s account excelled while working at every station at Vetri Cucina. “I learned to cook,” Kelberman said. “They really cared about teaching me.”
In February, Vetri offered him the job in Japan. So happened that Kelberman had a plane ticket to Paris in hand and even a place to stay. He had planned to leave Philadelphia for a series of stages in France, the training stints that will define the next phase of his restaurant career.
But with the coronavirus outbreak shutting down dining rooms in Europe, Kelberman figured that a move to Japan would not be so bad. Ace put him up in the hotel.
“I’m his eyes and ears on the ground,” Kelberman said Sunday. Japan has largely lifted coronavirus restrictions, and the restaurant is moving closer to opening.
Vetri and Kelberman work by video chat 6,900 miles and 13 hours apart, making sure the recipes, flavors, and plating are correct.
“I’m in a little bit over my head but I’m running with it," Kelberman said. "I found out I studied the wrong language, though.” He had banked on his Wissahickon High School French kick-starting his career in Europe.
Alas, virtually all of the kitchen staffers at the hotel are Japanese and speak little to no English.
He’s picking up the language but uses Google Translate on his phone. Quite often, “I’ll just cook something and show them,” Kelberman said. The chefs were impressed with the pork chop Parmesan, which gets pounded flat before it’s breaded and finished with sauce and cheese and is designed to feed two. (American palates would deem it one serving.)
Kelberman is also teaching the staff how to extrude and hand-roll pasta, and with Vetri has developed a red pizza topped with dehydrated cherry-blossom leaves, as well as one topped with shiso leaves.
When his term ends in September, Kelberman is not sure if he will head to France. “That would be cool, but a lot of countries are not giving out work visas,” he said. "This has given me ideas here. I’ve been meeting cool chefs and I’ll see what options are open when the dust settles.”