Vetri’s Family

Words by
Sarah Maiellano
Images by
Kriston Jae Bethel

*How one restaurant gave birth to many.

Back in 1998, when Marc Vetri opened his eponymous Northern Italian restaurant, Vetri Cucina, Philadelphia’s food scene was sleepy. Today, it’s wide awake, with the city’s culinary flair fawned over nationally and its restaurants cleaning up at last year’s James Beard Awards—a tidal shift that can be credited to Vetri in more ways than one.

In addition to consistently cooking some of the city’s most beloved food, and winning his own James Beard along the way, Marc has operated Vetri Cucina as an incubator of sorts over the past 25 years—the place where a number of Philly’s preeminent talents cut their teeth. Before Michael Solomonov opened Zahav, the foundation of his multi-dimensional restaurant universe, he worked in the kitchen at Vetri.

As did Dionicio Jimenez (Cantina la Martina). And Amanda Shulman (Her Place, My Loup) and Joey Baldino (Zeppoli, Palizzi Social Club). The list goes on. No wonder why so many past employees, who can often be found talking shop with Marc on Vetri’s front stoop, say that working at the restaurant is like double majoring in cooking and business.

Vetri in his kitchen during prep.

When you opened Vetri just over 25 years ago, Philly’s restaurant scene wasn’t really a scene. That’s changed.

When I opened, it was just the Striped Bass and Le Bec Fin. Fork had just opened up. It’s steadily been flourishing. It’s nice to be one of the pioneers.

What would it look like if you’d never opened Vetri?

I don’t know that it would look any different. I’m just one of the many threads in the whole fabric of this city. Maybe I gave solace to folks who saw us being successful, so they gave it a shot. The rents here are a lot less than in New York City. It’s a no-brainer to open up in Philly.

Do you have any sense of whether it was easier or harder to open a restaurant in Philly when you started compared to today?

That’s hard to say. It was definitely easier to turn a profit, but it was harder to get people’s attention because you had no social media, hardly any internet. You had to rely on articles. Social media is definitely a good thing for marketing and promoting the restaurants, if used correctly.

“I’m just one of the many threads in the whole fabric of this city.”

Vetri still spends most nights at Vetri Cucina.

Some of Philly’s most talented chefs got their start at Vetri. When someone like Michael Solomonov or Amanda Shulman starts working for you, do you know right away that they’re destined for greatness?

They have this mindset, this curiosity. But not only that: this work ethic and effort. They want to learn, to practice, to ask questions. They show up early, they leave late. You can be super talented, but talent is overrated and effort is overshadowed. People like Amanda, Jim Burke (the chef of James, who died in 2022), Dionicio Jimenez, and Jeff Michaud (owner of Osteria), they had a little something extra.

It’s got to be sad, knowing you’ll lose them.

I’m so happy for them! We know we’re going to lose them. No one stays forever. I know that they’re going to head out into industry and do amazing things, and I’m happy that I’m a stepping stone for them.

Do you now think of their restaurants as your competition?

Not at all. They add to the restaurant landscape. You go into different restaurants for different things.

How do you feel seeing them be the boss?

It’s an amazing feeling. When I first ate at Her Place, it was just amazing to watch Amanda. Watching Michael and Dionicio and Baldino are some of the highlights of my life. They found their own niche. They’re still some of my best friends. I speak to Michael three times a week. That’s the most fulfilling thing.

Do your former employees come to you for help?

Oh my god, we have lots of coffee talks, lots of crying. It’s not only them, but a lot of restaurateurs. If you name one, they’ve probably asked me or Jeff to sit down with them for a stoop talk.

So Vetri’s front stoop is kind of like a therapist’s office.

When it’s nice out. There’s always an espresso or cappuccino. I end up having like seven espressos before noon! It’s really what it’s all about. The cooking is also fun, but this is more important and more satisfying.

You must go home over-caffeinated!

I’m immune at this point. I have like 15 a day. I don’t know if it’s healthy.

† Jim Burke (1973–2022)

What’s a common problem people come to you to unravel?

The main thing I talk to restaurant owners and chefs about is what to do after their first restaurant. What’s next? How do they get there? What’s the right move? What to look for in a contract? How do they grow and make an impact with possibly a bigger space because the one restaurant just isn’t enough to live off, start a family, and save money?

My advice these days is simply this: Your first restaurant is your business card. It’s a marketing tool. Pour everything into it because that first restaurant is what sets you up for future success. I couldn’t have opened a successful pizzeria or other restaurants without spending nine years making my name at Vetri. That set me up with the offers for other restaurants, management deals, books and whatever else.

That’s a lot to juggle! How do you balance it all?

I have one bucket that I fill. A lot of folks have their work life and their home life, but I have a bucket and it’s the bucket of life, and it’s just like work/play/restaurant. I could be hiking on a mountain and if one of my chefs calls me, I know they need something so I answer it. I’m on a mountaintop with my wife… she’s, like, ‘Yes, obviously, answer it.’ That doesn’t work for everybody.

“You can be super talented, but talent is overrated and effort is overshadowed.”

How often are you in the kitchen these days?

I’m usually in the restaurants Monday to Friday. Most nights, I’m at Vetri, and stop into Pizzeria Salvy and Fiorella. I’m in Vegas a bit and sometimes in Asia, but when I’m in Philly, I’m in the restaurants. I love being here.

Do you want to brag about anyone currently working for you who you expect to see in the headlines—for their cooking, of course!—down the road?

Jacob Rozenberg, my chef at Vetri, has been with me for 12 years. Matt Rodrigue over at Fiorella has been with me for nine years. There’s lots of opportunity here within our organization, but if either of them want to open up their own thing, I imagine they will at some point.

Zach Kelberman was a line cook at Vetri. He got started with me right after high school and helped me open up a restaurant in Kyoto. Now, he’s working in Kyoto for chef Yoshihiro Imai at monk (featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table: Pizza). I’m sure one day he’s going to open up something here that’s mind blowing. I’ll stick all my money on him. He’s 25. He was born one month after I opened Vetri.

Can you pick a favorite restaurant among the Vetri alum?

Zero chance. I love all of my children equally.

“One day I was working pasta and Marc walked in from the dining room, stood over my pasta tank and asked me if my water was seasoned correctly, because it looked salty. I remember being totally panicked, questioning whether a person could see dissolved salt in rapidly boiling water. I said a confident “It’s perfect” and he shrugged and walked away. He just wanted a confident answer! Confidence was everything.”
— Amanda Shulman

Dish influenced by Vetri:
Ricotta spinach gnocchi in brown butter, sage, and Sicilian cheeses at Zeppoli. (Joey Baldino)

“I will be forever honored to have the mentorship of Marc Vetri. His approach to cooking and leadership is brilliant. I’ve learned from him that simple food, executed perfectly, evokes an emotional response from guests—something we’ve always tried to do at CookNSolo. He and I are also both super fortunate to have many chefs work in our restaurants who have embraced that mentality on the way to building their own place.”
— Michael Solomonov

Dish influenced by Vetri:
Branzino a la Sal at Cantina La Martina (Dionicio Jimenez)

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