Rule No. 2 of once-in-a-lifetime dining: If by some miraculous chance someone cancels a reservation at what Mario Batali calls the best Italian restaurant in America, you lie, cheat, steal, and do whatever you must to get to that restaurant and try that food. Because who knows when you will be able to score a reservation there again?
That’s pretty much what brought me to Vetri.
Vetri, run by Philadelphian and James Beard nominated chef Marc Vetri, is housed in an old brownstone, with a decor not unlike the house from Under the Tuscan Sun. From the moment you walk in, the hostess will ask your name, then know all sorts of things about you – the occasion you are celebrating, where you are from, if this is your first time dining here. Vetri’s team works hard to find out about its diners so when you arrive it is like you are arriving at an old friend’s home, filled with candles, rustic furniture, and intimate tables.
Every tasting menu (and the only menu here is the tasting menu) at Vetri starts with prosecco. This isn’t the cheapo stuff so often served at happy hours. This is a rounded, deep prosecco, with fruity and crisp, vegetal flavors. It is so delicious that I ordered another glass for my second drink, though there is an exceptional wine and liquor list from which to choose.
This plate of delicacies is the first taste every party gets. From the upper left hand corner there is:
Calabrese Salami – smooth, plesantly fatty, with a hefty kick of Calabrian chiles against the sweet pork.
Salami – more peppery and slightly thicker cut, with more of a chew. Meaty, with a kick of fennel.
Vegetable Patty – incredibly savory, dense patty filled with vegetables, garlic, and onions, topped with an intensely nutty Parmesan cracker.
Pastrami Cured Foie Gras – thin, lucsious layers of foie gras torchon cured with pastrami spices. At first, the taste is pure foie gras – buttery and dense. Then, there is a smoky taste that plays against the foie’s natural richness and finally, hints of garlic and pepper that are undeniably reminiscent of pastrami. What is unreal is how well this works – rather than overshadow the foie, the spices compliment it, make it richer and more foie-like. The dollop of sweet peach mostarda is the perfect touch of sweetness.
Marinated Apples with Balsamic and Parmesan Cheese – an ideal palate cleanser, tangy and tart.There is also a beautiful bowl of crudites served with a balsamic creme so rich and sweet it might have been confused for honey.
Persimmon Salad with Arugula
How can something so simple hit the palate in so many ways? The persimmon is soft and very sweet – almost like dates, but with a bit more brightness. It is so sugary that the arugula tastes positively savory and even bitter by contrast. The Parmesan shavings on top adds the perfect salty, fatty touch to anchor this salad. This is a surprise winner of the menu.
Zuppa di Parre with Pecorino Romano, Swiss Chard, and Poached Quail Egg
This light vegetable soup is reminiscent of Spring, with its tender Swiss chard, flavorful broth, and delightfully salty cheese melting into the soup. The quail egg is the crowning touch to this soup, its fluorescent yolk spilling into the broth, making it rich and thick. There are toasted polenta sticks at the bottom of the soup, soaking up the broth and the creamy yolk.
Sweet Onion Crepe with White Truffle Parmesan Fondue
This is one of Vetri’s signature dishes. The onions are caramelized for 10 hours before being layered into a crisp pastry shell, topped with Parmesan cheese, then placed on a bed of cheesy, truffle infused sauce. This is so delicious, it should be a crime. The onions are almost otherworldly sweet. They taste deep and sugary, just barely this side of burnt caramel. The pastry is crisp, and when dragged through the fondue, the bite becomes layered – heady, sweet, soft, melty, cheesy, and incredibly umami. When you go, please request this dish.
Squash Carmelle with Mostarda
This pasta is the one that still has me waking up in the night, reaching for it. Tender morsels of pasta surround pureed squash so sweet that it’s almost like piefilling. The mostarda sauce is piquant and tart, playing against the sugary aspects of the filling. A touch of fried sage on top adds some crunch, and the whole dish is so playful, so interesting, and so wildly delicious that it is-literally-the stuff of my dreams. The pasta perfectly straddles the line between savory and sweet, surprising the tastebuds at every bite.
Almond Tortellini with Truffle Sauce
Perfectly al dente pasta parcels hide cheesy, nutty, creamy, crunchy filling. Mild, and all about the texture, the truffle sauce was incredibly aromatic, light, and heady. It manages to be intense without being at all heavy. Topped with crushed amaretti cookies, Vetri again shows his exceptional palate, dancing between sweet and savory all in one bite.
Malloreddus with Bone Marrow, Fennel, and Orange
These shell shaped noodles are cloaked in a viscous sauce of fatty, rich bone marrow, sweetly caramelized fennel, and a heavy kick of tart orange zest. The combination of the hearty bone marrow and the fresh orange zest might be the best flavor pairing of the evening – it brings the marrow to life with a brightness that is not often seen in Italian food. The pasta, thick and served al dente, are the perfect shape to capture the meaty sauce in all its ridges.
This is mixed boiled meats in a light, pungent, herbaceous broth. It sounds so mundane and even depressing – boiled meat in broth? But this is a subtle, carefully prepared melange of meats that is anything but boring. There is capon, fatty and wild tasting. There is delicate, soft lamb’s tongue, tender veal breast, and juicy veal loin. The meat is all flavorful, but none of it is overly seasoned – this is all about the pure tastes and textures of the different types of meats. Served in a very light, herbaceous broth that brightens the dish, this is something I am so glad I got to try. This is the whole point of a tasting menu – to get to try foods you would never ordinarily taste. It is trusting the chef to make the right decision and, then sitting back and enjoying the wild ride.
These came after a lovely dessert course featuring passion fruit filled beignets and a chocolate potlenta cake. There are gooey toasted marshmallows, sweet and tart pate de fruit and two macarons – cinnamon and gianduja filled. It is an elegant way to end a spectacular meal.Vetri is a perfect restaurant. It is very expensive, and a treat to be sure – as much as I might want to, I, nor anyone I know, could not afford to eat here very often. But it is worth the price. The service is absolutely sensational – we had two main servers during our meal, and each came by to chat with us and ask us about NYC and about how we were enjoying the food. They weren’t patronizing us to get a tip, they were chatting with us because they honestly want to know the people who come to their establishment. They clearly want to be there, and their enjoyment increased ours tenfold. The food was absolutely incredible – that butternut squash pasta was better than any I have ever had in Italy. The atmosphere was incredibly romantic.
All of this leads me to believe Batali knows what he is talking about.
And Marc Vetri has, unequivocally, the best Italian restaurant in America.