When Marc Vetri and his partners sold their burgeoning restaurant empire to Urban Outfitters for big money in 2015, one big jewel in the crown — Vetri Ristorante — was not included in the deal.
"Vetri was out because I could never do it," he said of the place where, in 1998, he and Jeff Benjamin changed the city's concept of Italian food.
"I'll never be able to part with it emotionally."
It was a relief because I feel the same way. No restaurant in recent city history has remained a labor of love and investment in the name of gastronomy like this intimate townhouse homage to alta cucina.
Added in just the last few years: a luxurious second-floor show kitchen and dining room for private events, lit by a bordello-red Murano chandelier; elegant crockery from Ginori ("the Ferrari of porcelain"); and a milling room to grind the grain for Vetri's extraordinary pastas and breads.
The difference in a noodle made of fresh-ground flour may be almost imperceptibly subtle, but it has lent even more sublimeness in texture and flavor to pastas that were already amazing, wrapped in various dumplings around ramps or sweet summer corn, toasted almonds or earthy mushrooms, or cut into silky ribbons glazed in the opaque tang of buffalo's-milk butter beneath briny flakes of shaved bottarga roe.
There have been momentary slips unbecoming of Philly's most expensive tasting menu ($155), including a doughy period of too much flour in the famous spinach gnocchi — until the recipe was recently restored to its original airy glory.
But under the newest chef, Joey DeLago, this kitchen has largely continued to progress. He has maintained the classics (the rustic goat, the truffled-onion crepe, the yolk-oozing asparagus flan) while embracing more local ingredients (risotto rice from Jersey!), while the menu glides easily toward contemporary and multicultural inspirations.
Like the stunning smoked sturgeon with caviar and peas, or a crudo of tuna and pickled blueberries over sweet basil and melon puree. Or the inventive "rotolo" sliced eggplant layed over pasta rolled into a tube and gratineed. Or the Peking duck lacquered with maple and plum compote paraded through the dining room as the star of Vetri's new $85 lunch, served the first Friday of every month, and a delightfully abridged (yet still substantial) alternative for those who find the hours-long commitment of dinner too much.
Either way, there will be exceptional (and pricey) Italian wines in grand or grander tastings to wash down every bite, poured by the warmest, most enthusiastic staff around.
And you're also likely to see chef Vetri himself, still doting on the restaurant that he kept for himself — and for the city that embraced him before national fame followed.