I’ve been getting to know a new city and her environs, and our relationship is off to a very good start. Philadelphia feeds me well and always seems to have something new to share. She’s introduced me to the yarn store Loop in Center City (where only the fact that my companion was double-parked outside the door kept me from lingering long and spending wildly);
the boutiques of Chestnut Hill (where unique Christmas or Hanukkah presents can be found in an afternoon);
the Barnes (in its original home);
and Fante’s Kitchen Wares shop in the Italian Market neighborhood, where one can pick up an indispensable countertop butter keeper.
I’ve discovered the pleasures of people watching in Rittenhouse Square while eating a sandwich from Di Bruno Brothers; making one’s own margaritas at Lolita; and waiting in a tiny townhouse foyer for the chance to enjoy a bargain-priced, pre-symphony Italian dinner at La Viola. I’ve brunched at LeBus in Manayunk and Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat in Northern Liberties.
And while all of this has been awfully delightful, what I discovered recently was that Philadelphia had been holding a little bit back. Perhaps she just wanted to be sure I wasn’t a fair-weather friend. I can understand this. Because Vetri is simply not a restaurant to be shared with a casual acquaintance.
To begin with, it’s the sort of place that requires a degree of forethought if you wish to dine here on a Saturday evening. Two months of forethought, in fact. (Given that sort of advance planning, you may feel justified in buying a new pair of shoes for the occasion.)
It’s also the sort of place where, upon arriving, you will be greeted in the townhouse foyer by a young man who may apologize that your table is not quite ready, but a glass of Prosecco will be offered to ease your wait, while your anticipation increases.
The dining room holds only 35 guests and a pre-fixe tasting menu is served. A seasonal menu, written in the hand of the chef, Marc Vetri, is given to each diner, showing the array of dishes from which the kitchen will select your dinner. If there is something you simply must have or absolutely can’t have, you let the waiter know and the kitchen will respond accordingly. While several of us made one request – it’s difficult to pass up soft shell crab – we left the remainder of the evening in the chef’s hands.
Starting things off was a plate of assaggi – little bites – including vegetable crostini, foie gras on brioche, and homemade salami.
Next came the soft shell crab, seated on a small mound of fregola and slivered green beans, for those of us who had expressed an interest in it. Though we were more than content, the one member of our table who had gone entirely “chef’s choice” received the sweet onion crepe with white truffle as his first course. When he closed his eyes to more completely experience his second bite, I knew I wouldn’t be making any requests the next time (should there be a next time) I found myself in this dining room. At this point, there was a bottle of 2009 Parusso, Langhe, Nebbiolo on the table, along with a glass of 2007 Falesco “Ferentano” Roscetto.
Third course – almond tortellini with truffle sauce, rigatoni alla bolognese with chard, and spinach gnocchi with brown butter.
Fourth course – duck salad with apricots and chanterelles for some of us, rotelle with lobster and leek for others.
Fifth course – black bass with zucchini and peas for the women, Creekstone dry-aged ribeye with roasted pepper and celery salad for the men. We drank a 2002 Le Macchiole, Paleo Rosso and 2009 Isole e Olena Chardonnay with these. Cheese and dessert courses followed, and some 3 1/2 hours after we had arrived, we sat sipping coffee and discussing the possibility of recreating the meal from Babette’s Feast, so inspired were we by the pleasure of the meal we had just shared.
What’s next, Philadelphia?