GROWING UP in an Italian family, cooking was second nature for Marc Vetri.
His paternal grandfather, an immigrant from Sicily, settled in Abington in the 1920s and started a family - and a host of cooking traditions.
Marc was born in the '60s, and soon he was spending his weekends helping his grandmother Jenny make everything from fried smelts to ricotta cheesecake.
But it wasn't until he'd graduated from Drexel University in 1990, with a degree in finance and a fierce love for guitar-playing, that Vetri realized that cooking was his life's passion.
After working in a few Los Angeles restaurants, the soft-spoken culinary virtuoso journeyed to Italy in 1993 to study with master chefs in Sicily, Bergamo, Rome and Piedmont. He didn't want to just open his own restaurant back home in Philly, he wanted to make it the most authentic the city had ever seen.
He left for Italy with just $1,500 in his pocket, a one-way plane ticket and a handwritten note from a friend urging a chef in Bergamo, Northern Italy, to give him a job and an apartment. Vetri simply trusted his instincts - and relied on anyone who was willing to help him.
For the next two years, he studied with chefs, line cooks, winemakers and more than a few culinary characters who taught him the beauty and simplicity of regional Italian foods.
He opened his eponymous Center City restaurant, Vetri, in 1999, and it was quickly recognized as a Northern Italian gem that remains one of the city's most prestigious and acclaimed restaurants. In 2007, he realized a second success with North Broad Street's Osteria, a traditional, more casual Italian restaurant that serves small plates, pizzas, homemade pastas and wines.
Vetri has documented his years abroad and his lifelong friendships with his culinary mentors in a recently published memoir/cookbook, "Il Viaggio di Vetri" (Ten Speed Press, $40).
We spoke with him recently about the book, about all the friends he met along the way, and about how he made his dream a reality.
Q: So how did the idea for the book emerge?
A: Well we've been working on a concept for a lot of years. I originally wanted to do a tasting-menu book, a pasta book, but then I got more into going back to Italy [to visit recently], and I just really wanted to do this. It was evident that people started to become very interested in my story - how I started in Italy - and . . . it was clear that it was interesting. That they kind of loved that there were all these characters in Italy that I really wanted people to know. But I wasn't able to bring them to Italy to show them.
Q: You've always loved cooking, even as a child?
A: I used to cook Sundays with my grandmother here, and my father used to cook on weekends, and I just liked it. When I was in high school, I just started working at the Down Beach Deli in Margate, N.J. I was 14 or 15. I washed dishes. I wasn't driving yet; I was riding my bike to work. I loved it. The next summer, I worked there and worked up to the line [cook position].
Q: How did you end up deciding to go to Italy in 1993, when you were in your 20s?
A: I was in Los Angeles and I was working for [Wolfgang] Puck [at Granita], and I was kind of getting tired of making California cuisine. I met a guy who owned a couple of restaurants in L.A. who knew this bunch of restaurants in Italy, and he sent me over there with a note. I just bought a one-way ticket and went.
I was there for about two years all together. I just worked in different restaurants. I spent a year in Bergamo and traveled around to Venice and Tuscany, and worked and met people in different restaurants. When you are there, you just sort of roll with it. They say, "There's a restaurant where they make the best this or that," so you hop on a train with one backpack with all your stuff in it and get to travel and learn as much as you can.
Q: The chefs and characters you met on your travels, tell me about them.
A: They were all very specific in what they did. And they are all important parts of my life [even] now. Massi [Massimiliana Locatelli, a restaurant manager and artist] still makes all my logos and my menus at Vetri. Marco [Rossi, a waiter at a Bergamo restaurant] is like still one of my best friends in the world.
I probably talk to him on the phone more than I talk to members of my family . . . and every time I head over there, we all kind of get together and we just have all these special nights . . . when I come we all make this effort. I go about twice a year.
Q: How does it feel to receive so much praise for Vetri and be viewed as an Italian culinary ambassador for Philadelphia?
A: I mean, it's definitely flattering to be thought of as that, but more so . . . I am lucky I get to do what I love. And, you know, now it's more of a teacher-student situation, where I get these younger guys coming in and I get to mold them and watch them evolve into something special. It's just nice to watch them take the same steps that I took. And they want to go to Italy, so I send them to the restaurants I worked at. *
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