review: the perfect plate of pasta…
Is there anything more pleasing than a perfect plate of pasta?
Perhaps. But not much.
I can pinpoint the day and hour of my last plate of perfect pasta. It was corzetti, and it was more of a taste, rather than a plate. I ate this standing up, negotiating armfuls of *stuff* – including my camera – elbow-to-elbow with 84 gazillion other people at this year’s James Beard Awards in New York City. And yet, all of those inconveniences seemed to fade away during the few short bites of the supple discs of flour dough pasta lightly sauced with walnut pesto and garnished with marjoram and Parmesan.
Marc Vetri, whom I’ve been “foodie stalking” for years, and his two-man team were rolling, cooking, and finishing that transcendent corzetti on table-top burners. (Vetri won the James Beard for the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2005.) It was impressive.
As if I hadn’t already been frothing at the mouth for years to get to his restaurant, Vetri Ristorante, I renewed my resolve and put it on my calendar.
And because it was the main focus (other than seeing good friends, of course) of my recent trip to Philadelphia, I ate at Vetri not once, but twice. Though many other restaurants in the city beckoned, Vetri was Mecca for me. I enlisted two of my dearest dining friends to join me in my pilgrimage. They drove in from New Jersey.
Vetri is the kinder, gentler Babbo. Other than having incredible pasta programs (and being located in a retrofitted townhouse), the two are little alike. But I found myself comparing them almost immediately and continuously.
Neither Vetri’s food nor its service brandishes the aggressive edges that Batali’s does. Vetri’s got curves, gilded with French flourishes (haunted by the former tenant?) – fondue instead of fondutta, sabyon instead of zabaglione, and crépe instead of crespelle – and softened by a mostly female wait staff. Whereas Vetri’s food is more playful and moors slightly farther from Italy, Batali’s seems set in stone – perhaps from having the benefit (or curse) of more media and chatter and more years of developing a menu of rotating “signatures” – Batali feels more dogmatic. Whereas I wouldn’t miss having a knife at Vetri, I’d never think of eating a meal at Babbo without one.
This is not to say Vetri’s food isn’t hearty, rustic, or bold. What I had was immensely so. But this is Italian food with one pinky raised.
There are a number of ways to enjoy Marc Vetri’s cooking. On weeknights, you have a choice of ordering á la carte, the “Tasting Menu” ($115) or the “Grand Tasting Menu” ($135), the latter of which is a progression of antipasti (a flurry of snacks followed by one or two composed plates), primi (two per person – with us, they even brought out a third for each of the two courses for us to share), secondi (fish or meat), an intermezzo (or, pre-dessert), and dolci (dessert).
On the tasting, the staff first consults with the table: preferences, allergies, and dislikes are discussed.
The first evening, the “Grand Tasting” presented (Click here to see all of the photos from this meal):
Marinated Zucchini Sticks
Wrapped in prosciutto
Local chevre with pickled wax beans
Filled with plum and wrapped in lardo
Tomato, bacon, and basil
Pastrami Foie Gras
Brioche and rhubarb mostarda
Bresaolo, pancetta, coppa, calabresa, soppressata, black pepper-cured sausage.
Crispy brussels sprouts, fried fennel, and pickled cucumbers
Almonds and cherry agro dolce
Plums, arugula, and olive oil
Eggplant caponata and gnocchi friti
Proprieta Sperino, Rosa del Rosa 2007, Piedmont
(Paired with the Burrata)
Golden Sweet Onion Crêpe
Truffled Parmesan fondue, Parmesan gratinee
Smoked shaved ricotta salata and brown butter sauce
White truffle sauce
Green beans and potato
Fazzoletti with Duck Ragu
Mesquite-smoked baby goat with soft polenta
Black pepper gelato
Chocolate Polenta Budino
Local Honey Ice Cream
Blueberry granita, currants, and mint
Domaine Cazes, Rivesaltes 1988 “Tuilé,” Roussillon
(Paired with the Chocolate Polenta Budino)
On Fridays/Saturdays (depending on the season – Fridays in the spring/summer and Saturdays in autumn/winter), the restaurant only offers the “Degustazione” ($135), a tasting menu that, as I learned on my second evening at Vetri, is essentially the same format as the “Grand Tasting Menu” that we had a few nights before. The only difference between the “Grand Tasting” and the Degustazione, as we were told, is that the Degustazione is supposedly a culmination of the chef’s weekly whims. As described on the website:
“To fully experience Vetri restaurant, you must reserve a table for the chef’s menu on Saturday night. On these special evenings, Marc Vetri creates new dishes inspired by the freshest seasonal ingredients from local food producers. The chef then hand-paints an original menu for each table in the restaurant. These beautiful menus lead Vetri’s guests on a culinary journey known in Italy as “degustazione” … or, simply, tasting.”
But this is misleading. Or, at least, it was in my experience; the Degustazione menu was comprised almost entirely of Vetri’s signature dishes. There were also a few from the regular a la carte menu. The other confusing thing about the Degustazione, for which there is a specially hand-painted and written menu, is that the menu lists twelve dishes: three each in four different sets: antipasti, primi, secondi, and dolci. But, you don’t get all twelve on the menu, like you would on most printed tasting menus. Not unlike our “Grand Tasting” earlier in the week, preferences, dislikes and allergies are discussed first. This is also where special requests are appropriately addressed. And, not unlike our “Grand Tasting,” diners may receive different dishes for any given course, so, given a larger party, it is possible that one might see all twelve dishes on the menu at their table.
As a result, our “Grand Tasting” ended up being more of a “chef’s whim” degustazione (as described) – there was more of a surprise element (you had no idea what you were getting) than for the Degustazione, which was largely spelled out on the specially printed menu.
Having returned to Vetri for the Degustazione on the assurance that we would be able to experience an entirely different set of dishes than our “Grand Tasting Menu,” the staff happily accommodated our requests for changes and substitutions – even going off-menu for one in our party – which landed our table with a whole salt-baked branzino.
Our Degustazione presented (Click here to see all of the photos from this meal.):
Parmesan, artichoke heart, and extra virgin olive oil
Tomato, fresh mozzarella
Stuffed Zucchini Blossom
Cheese-stuffed zucchini with tomato and basil.
Quail egg yolk, Parmesan and truffle cream sauce
Hen ragu & plum
Sweet Corn Agnolotti
Salt-crusted Whole Branzino
Cantina Terlano, Nova Domus Riserva 2003
Washington State Berries
Local Peach Tart
So, what’s this business about a perfect plate of pasta?
Vetri speaks my kind of lingua pasta. In my opinion, not all pasta should be al dente. As a general rule, I prefer my stuffed pastas softer and smoother (perhaps that’s why I liked the lasagna at insieme so much). Sauced pastas – those without fillings – are usually most enjoyable when they protest with a slight resistance, have more bounce, and, given the right sauce, hew with a bit of heft.
And so it goes with Marc Vetri, who makes perfect tortellini. And to think we might have missed it: we were each brought out a bowl of Vetri’s signature Spinach Gnocchi with brown butter and shaved smoked ricotta salata, and the server dropped off a bowl of the Almond Tortellini for us to share. Whether it was an afterthought, a gift, or a part of the meal, I will never know – and I really don’t care.
Unlike most tortellini (see my gripe here – scroll down to the bit about the sweet corn tortellini), which are tough and meager, these soft pockets filled with a creamy risotto of Carnaroli rice (I’m almost positive the risotto was bolstered by an aged cheese) and dusted with crunchy bits of toasted almonds, were fat and happy. These tortellini, lightly bathed in a pungent white truffle sauce, were made even more thrilling by the wine pairing (Bolognani, Teroldego 2006 “Armilo,” Trentino), which, though intended for the spinach gnocchi, married better with the tortellini. The dark red juice, slightly earthy and spicy, picked up the toastiness in the nuts and cheese in an electrifying storm of flavor. This course, especially with the wine, was a good stone’s throw ahead of any other dishes I had at Vetri.
The Tomino Ravioli, which followed on the heels of tortellini and gnocchi, were every bit as perfect. The pasta was soft and silky, and gave way to a creamy, smooth filling of bright, tangy Tomino di Talucco (a goat and cow-milk cheese from the Piedmont), all of which was offset by meaty dices of potatoes and crunchy segments of green beans that were scattered on top of the pasta pillows.
Sweet Corn Agnolotti presented supple rectangular thimbles filled with a sweet corn puree and coated with a simple sweet corn sauce vierge (I’m injecting French because I don’t know how to describe it) – a slightly chunky puree of sweet corn.
Rusticity found its home in Basil Tagliatelle, a tangle of bright green ribbons laden with a chunky hen ragu so rich and flavorful it could have doubled for bolognese, and Fazzoletti, frilly-edged squares – the angled cousin of the round corzetti – glistening with duck ragu with salty black olives and torn planks of dark duck meat tucked throughout. Both were good, but lagged behind the filled-pastas.
What made both of these dishes stand out were their respective wine pairings – San Alejandro Garnacha 2005 ‘Los Rocas’ for the Basil Taglietelle and Cantina Santadi, Shardana 2001 from Sardegna for the Fazzoletti. By itself, that Garnacha was my favorite wine of the fourteen I tried over the course of my two visits to Vetri.
Two things about the Spinach Gnocchi struck me as odd: first, they were soggy and mushy (two words that aren’t in my pasta lexicon); second, they were large and round – more spinach balls than gnocchi. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that these “gnocchi” weren’t pasta at all. I asked the server what the binding agent was – Ricotta? Potato? Flour? Assolutamente niente: just spinach puree and a touch of egg. That explained the texture, which even after the explanation, I’m not sure I could get over enough to enjoy the otherwise brilliant marriage of flavors.
As for the rest of the food, it was all very good, but as always, some appealed more than others. Here were the highlights:
House-cured Salumi: I always get excited when I see salumi. We ordered this as a supplement to our Grand Tasting. A wooden paddle bore an accomplished assortment of bresaolo, soppressata, coppa, prosciutto, calabrasa, and black pepper-cured salami. These thinly sliced meats were accompanied with fried fennel, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pickled cucumbers.
Capretto: It was love from first read. I had to have it, and thankfully, my companions didn’t object. The pulled pieces of grilled goat, smoky with Mesquite, which helped temper the natural muskiness (which, I love but beyond what most can tolerate) of the meat, sat on a bed of soft polenta. I enjoyed it so much the first night that I asked for it supplemented into my degustazione the following night. I suspect they grill an entire goat since the first night, I had wedges of interior meat and at the second meal, I got part of the rib rack and plenty of crackling.
Crispy Sweetbreads: This was exciting even though the result didn’t live up to its name. These nuggets were molten and creamy on the inside, but what flaky crust had encased the sweetbreads had been sauced with a sweet and sour cherry agro dolce, which I fell in love with. Think sweet and sour pork done with cherries and lamb.
Formaggio: The puny cheese cart sits, awkwardly, in the dark entryway to the restaurant. But don’t let its situation or size deter you from ordering the cheese at Vetri.
Vetri demonstrates that you don’t have to have a well-stocked trolley to make a success out of a cheese course. A small but interesting selection will always impress me more than a large one with mostly usual suspects. All four of the cheeses we had at the Vetri were artisanal and imported from Italy. Not surprisingly, my favorite of the four was the stinky Brascianella Stagionata, a wash rind cow’s milk that was buttery, slightly sweet, and very pungent. As a friend of mine once put it, it’s a cheese that keeps on giving. The Testun al Barolo, a sheep’s (sometimes goat) milk cheese whose coating of pressed Nebbiolo grapes (whence Barolo wine) perfumed the creamy interior with a grape-like sweetness, was also memorable.
Foie Gras Pastrami: An antipasti on our first meal, this wedge of silken foie gras pâté, served on toasted brioche, tasted *just like pastrami.* It was topped with a tart and spicy rhubarb mostarda.
Golden Sweet Onion Crêpe: This, perhaps more than any of the pastas, is Vetri’s best known dish. I can certainly see why. It was amazing. It’s not a crêpe in the traditional sense. Caramelized sweet onions are stuffed and rolled into a crêpe. The roulade is sliced, topped with grated cheese, and baked (I’m supposing it’s baked). The gratinee round is plated on top of a creamy truffled fondue. It’s like a hundred bowls of French onion soup condensed into one tiny puck. It’s salty, it’s sweet, it’s creamy, it’s soft, and it’s crispy. It’s intense.
Asparagus Flan: This is another one of Vetri’s signature dishes. I mention it as a highlight only because it was perfectly executed and because anything with a runny egg yolk tucked inside deserves a spotlight.
The liquid gold gushed out, mingling with the rich Parmesan truffle cream sauce on the plate, as soon as my fork broached the impossibly fluffy green dome almost too delicate to hold its own weight. Visually seductive and dramatic, it was otherwise rather forgettable. The asparagus in the flan would have been completely overwhelmed by all of the other elements had it not been rescued by an intensely flavored swatch of asparagus puree.
Although Jeffrey Benjamin is listed as the wine director, I’m fairly certain that he’s gone off to oversee Vetri’s newest restaurant, Osteria, which Vetri co-owns with Benjamin and Jeff Michaud. (Osteria was nominated this year (2008) for Best New Restaurant). While Vetri has yet to name a new wine director on its website, I will nominate Steve Wildly, who served us both evenings. His wine pairings were excellent. Most of his couplings were weighty. Wildly’s approach goes for the throat: bold, gutsy and aggressive on their own, these were the type of wines that wrap themselves around the food its paired with.
Save gelato, which I was getting more than my fair share of at Capogiro, Italian desserts, for the most part, have always struck me as slightly less exciting versions of desserts from other cultures. That’s probably not a fair statement, given that I’m not exactly an Italian food scholar. But I’ve rarely encountered an Italian dessert for which there is not a cultural counterpart that I don’t like better (geez, if that’s *not* a grammatical nightmare).
Vetri excels at simplicity, and for the most part, the desserts that we saw were simple, and therefore, tended to be good. But none were thrilling.
Fresh Washington State Berries smothered with a velvety blanket of warm sabayon heady with alcohol, ladled table-sided, was particularly memorable. So was the Local Honey Ice Cream, which featured two scoops nested in a tall martini glass topped with grainy blueberry granita and a garnish of fresh mint and tart red currants.
But the rest of our desserts – “Strawberry Shortcake” (notable only for its black pepper gelato which didn’t taste very peppery), “Chocolate Polenta Budino“; (your standard-issue molten chocolate cake colored Italian with a gritty polenta crumb), and a “Local Peach Tart” – all very good but not particularly special. However, the silver dish of “Piccola Pasticceria” (small sweets – mignardises) were truly wonderful – an assortment of pâtés des fruits, cannelés, polenta cookies, and wonderfully decadent layered dark chocolate cakes that were the love child of tiramisu and opera cake.
Judging by our service, Vetri was deserving of its nomination this year (2008) for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Service Award. The staff was warm and gracious. They fit together so comfortably and were so coordinated, that Vetri felt like a family operation. We were never in want of anything.
Vetri is not the first top toque to inhabit 1312 Spruce. This narrow townhouse was the original situs of Georges Perrier’s fabled Le Bec Fin, which moved a few blocks over and up. The restaurant is textbook cozy – a little too much to be comfortably American. Two tops can be tight, although both of our four tops had plenty of elbow room and ear cushion. But the butter yellow walls, dark wooden floor boards, and simple austere slat-back chairs all could have walked straight out of an Italian home – a far cry from the restaurant’s frilly and pink predecessor.
Marc Vetri strikes me as the type of chef who keeps his head down and works. It shows and pays off. Vetri Ristorante was everything I hoped it would be. It’s self-assured. It’s stable. It’s imbued with personality. The experience creates a dialogue. It has a soul: the setting, place, and food. And the execution is spotless.
Like so many of the restaurants that I’m blessed to be able visit, Vetri is one that I’ll look forward to returning to.
1312 Spruce Street