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Vetri, Las Vegas: A Philly chef’s next gambit

Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin have gone to Sin City to open a second Vetri Cucina.

Chef Marc Vetri in the dining room of Vetri Las Vegas on the 56th floor of the Palms Casino Resort.
Chef Marc Vetri in the dining room of Vetri Las Vegas on the 56th floor of the Palms Casino Resort.Read moreMichael Klein / Staff

LAS VEGAS — There was a time not too long ago when Marc Vetri was a gambling man, which seems to make sense, given his new restaurant in Las Vegas.

Twenty years ago, having just cleared 30, he was a chef from Abington, a single guy, a middle child from a family of overachievers, living and working in Italy, who pooled everything he’d saved into opening a tiny restaurant back home. To, in his words, “cook some food and make a living.”

Vetri clicked, a bastion of refined cooking in red-gravy Philadelphia. Vetri then made a business partner of his manager, Jeff Benjamin. Together, as the accolades rolled in and reservation books filled up, they opened more restaurants, including two Osterias, two Amises, and Pizzeria Vetri, mortgaging their houses all the while.

“Seven restaurants,” said Vetri, 52, his beard now a professorial gray and his head shaved. “All-in risk, all on our shoulders. ... I remember once, I went to my wife and I was like, ‘Here, honey, can you sign these?’ She’s like, ‘What am I signing?’ I was like, ‘You’re signing our house away if the restaurant fails.’ "

For two family men, this was not the easy life.

Vetri and JB, as Benjamin is known, did have a scare. The Osteria location in the Moorestown Mall, which Vetri called “a tanker,” almost took them down three years ago. They closed it and pulled through. They sold all the restaurants, except for the original, to Urban Outfitters shortly after.

Pocketing the proceeds, they were back to one restaurant but ready for something new.

Vetri, still working on the line five nights a week, has been investing in projects he enjoys, such as Primal Supply Meats, a high-end butcher, as well as real estate, including a former butcher shop in South Philadelphia. Benjamin is helping to open and run the Fitler Club, a private club that will begin opening in late January at 2400 Market St. Vetri is an investor there, Benjamin said.

This month finds them 2,100 miles away, opening a second Vetri Cucina, on the 56th floor of the Palms Casino Resort — floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, and the Las Vegas Strip off in the distance, burning neon by the gigawatt.

Vetri Cucina Las Vegas — at 70 or so seats, minuscule by casino standards — was created largely in the spirit of the original polished Italian destination at 1312 Spruce St. in Center City Philadelphia, down to the colorful Wave glasses, Broggi silverware, and bordello-red Murano chandelier.

This may be Vegas, home of gambling, but Vetri and Benjamin really have nothing to lose.

It’s a deal they did not even set out to make. They had long resisted opening a second Vetri Cucina, primarily because they said they need to control their flagship brand. Even a location in Atlantic City or New York was always a no.

“I’m not anti-Vegas,” said Benjamin, 50. “We’re not prudes, but it just didn’t appeal to us. Everything is big in Vegas. The grand scale is not our ethos.”

Enter fellow James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Symon, who won on Iron Chef and who until recently was a host of ABC’s The Chew. Symon signed on last year to open a branch of his Mabel’s BBQ on the ground floor of the Palms, across the lobby from Shark Palms, a seafood restaurant from another celebrity chef, Bobby Flay.

Symon was Palms owner Station Casino’s first choice to operate a second restaurant at the Palms: a high-end Italian restaurant on the 56th floor, in the style of his Angeline restaurant, which opened in May 2017 at the Borgata in Atlantic City.

Last week, Symon said he turned Station down. He suggested Vetri would be the best fit.

While Station executives were in Atlantic City for the opening of Angeline, they sent a team to Spruce Street for dinner. “We were blown away,” said James LaFlamme, at the time brokering restaurant deals for Station. LaFlamme called Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the billionaire brothers behind the casino, and urged them to visit Vetri as well.

It turns out the Fertittas had a reservation booked for the very next week. Lorenzo Fertitta’s son Lorenzo Jr., who was graduating from Villanova University, had bought out the second floor of Vetri for a party.

Vetri said the brothers came, ate, and gave them positive feedback. “Then I didn’t hear from them for four months,” he said. As Vetri was negotiating his departure from Urban, the call came. Vetri and Benjamin flew out to Las Vegas, rode the elevator to the top, and took in the view.

And it was their turn to be blown away.

Their deal with Station is simple. Station paid to build the restaurant for an undisclosed sum as part of the $620 million renovation of the Palms. Vetri and Benjamin employ their own workforce and run the restaurant in return for a percentage of sales.

“Yeah, every chef I talk to is like, ‘I think this is great. You get out there twice a year, you show your face and you leave,’ ” Vetri said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that doesn’t sound like anything I would do.’ I love coming here. I think of it like Vetri Philly. When I’m here, I literally am here for 40 or 72 hours. I don’t even leave the hotel.”

In a way, the Vegas restaurant is Vetri’s thumb in the eye to the detractors who think he now might be spreading himself too thin. Vetri scoffs at that notion.

Vetri — the middle child of Sal (an investor, home cook, and retired jeweler) and Barbara (a lawyer), between siblings Montgomery County Court Judge and former District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and TV executive Adam Vetri — has always had a contrarian nature.

"My father has said to me my whole life: ‘I don’t know, Marc. The whole world goes left. You go right,’ ” said Vetri. He spent tens of thousands of dollars on new furnishings in leaner times. Seven years ago, he bucked the establishment to change Vetri Cucina to a fixed-price tasting menu (now $165 per person). In a potentially risky PR strategy, he pens op-eds and is not afraid to chide people who blame gluten for the ills of the world.

With the Vegas restaurant, “I feel like I’m on this new road,” he said.

On a recent night, a private party was going full force — a tequila company celebrating with a sit-down dinner buy-out. Bartenders hustled up drinks while waiters carried out oversize platters of lobster, octopus, swordfish, and chicken, hot off the wood-fired grills.

The party wasn’t a see-and-be-seen scene to the man whose name was on the door. Vetri was back in the kitchen, pulling sliced porchetta from the oven and placing it on trays. He’s among his people back there. All of the Vetri Las Vegas managers have worked in Philadelphia.

He believes his little restaurant on top of a casino on Flamingo Road is a slice of Philadelphia.

“See? Look,” he said, waving east toward the Strip.

“There is the Vegas that everybody thinks about. It’s a nightmare to go over there. You can’t move. You can’t do anything. All of the New York restaurants are out there."

He waved toward his bar. "We’re here. So I kind of feel like that’s New York and this is Philly. And I like that. We’re still the underdogs.”