January 15, 2014 at 9:00 AM

The Heart of Italy in Philly

"Philadelphia's Marc Vetri cooks up some of the best Italian food in the country..."

By Lynn Cline

Gourmet Girl

Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.

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Lynn with Marc Vetri Photo: Peter Capolino

For a few years now, whenever I visit my family back East, my uncle and aunt have taken me to some of the most amazing Italian restaurants I've ever tried—better even than some great eateries in Italy. They're all owned by one extraordinary Philadelphia chef, Marc Vetri, winner of the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2005.

The Vetri Family Restaurants in Philadelphia include Vetri Ristorante, Osteria, Amis  Alla Spina and Pizzeria Vetri. After years of working in some of the best kitchens in Italy and the U.S. Vetri opened his eponymous Philadelphia restaurant in 1998 and quickly was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Ten Best New Chefs. The restaurant received the Philadelphia Inquirer's highest rating.

Vetri's food is truly exquisite. I've eaten at Osteria multiple times and on a trip I just returned from, I got to try Amis and Alla Spina. Each restaurant has it own unique personality and menu, created by one of the most influential and respected Italian chefs in the country.

Vetri Ristorante is the first and the flagship, housed in an intimate townhouse that seats only 30 and was once occupied by the fabled Le Bec Fin. The fare is rustic, featuring handcrafted pastas, creative flavor combos and gorgeous presentations. The six-course tasting menu spotlights fresh, local ingredients in such signature dishes as  spinach gnocchi with brown butter; sweet onion crepe with white truffle; and baby goat with freshly stone-milled polenta. The restaurant's wine cellar has some 2,500 bottles of Italian varietals and was one of the first upscale restaurants to offer craft and artisanal beers.

Next came Osteria, which Vetri and his co-owners dreamed up one day while standing in the Ca’ Marcanda vineyards in Tuscany. Opened in 2007, this traditional Italian osteria offers incredible homemade pasta, thin crust pizza as well as a thicker Napoletane crust, wood-grilled meats and fish and spit-roasted baby pig. The menu is seasonal and the wine list includes more than 100 bottles from Trentino, Sicily and other famous Italian vineyards. My favorite dishes here include the chicken liver rigatoni with cipollini onions and sage; beet and goat cheese plin with tarragon; wood-grilled octopus with cured lemon, potato and chives, and parma pizza, with mozzarella, fontina, arugula and prosciutto di parma.

Amis followed in 2010, an informal restaurant —sleek and industrial, with an open kitchen and a staff that can wax rhapsodic about every dish on the menu. On this recen t trip, I had the chance to dine at Amis for the first time with my uncle and aunt, Peter Capolino and Fran Deitrich, as well as two second cousins I'd never met. We couldn't have chosen a better place for a family gathering. The food was absolutely fabulous, from the creamy eggplant  caponata and imported bufala ricotta and black pepper apps—both served with bruschetta—to the swordfish meatballs with creamy polenta and pine nuts, and tonnarelli “cacio e pepe” with pecorino and black pepper. The staff was incredibly attentive, and the chef himself, a friend of my uncle and aunt's, showed up to meet us.

As a longtime food writer, I've met and interviewed a lot of chefs, and it's safe to say that running a restaurant can be as stressful as working the midnight shift in a metropolitan hospital's emergency room. Many chefs have tempers and are known to throw a few pots and pans around the kitchen when things heat up. But Vetri was amazingly kind, engaging and interested, even taking the time to pose for photographs. I was thoroughly impressed by his knowledge of food, his interest in us and his mega-watt smile.

Also on this trip, I visited his fourth restaurant, an Italian gastropub called Alla Spina (Italian for “from the tap” ). The custom copper draft towers here offer local and Italian brews that are hard to find in the U.S., along with pub fare—oysters, housemade sausages and braised meats. We sat at the bar and perused the menu, with signature dishes including housemade pretzels with beer cheese; veal breast Milanese hoagie with bacon maionese; maple-glazed fried chicken; pig pot pie; and poutine with guinea hen leg bolognese and mozzarella curd. I chose the Italian bánh mi with roasted pork shoulder, chicken liver pâté, pickled daikon and carrot, and cilantro, which was a festival of flavors, each complementing the other, and we all shared a hearty and rustic charcuterie plate with housemade terrine accompanied by mustard, pickled vegetables, prosciutto and celery root slaw. Innovative desserts include beer milkshakes, and donut bread pudding.

Last year, Vetri opened his fourth restaurant, Pizzeria Vetri, and the pizza is considered among the best in Philly (which now has a robust scene of artisanal pizza makers). The small, casual pizzeria devotes itself to the art of authentic Italian pizza-making, with a simple menu of wood-fired pizzas, calzones and salads. The rotolo—a savory roulade with layers of mortadella, ricotta and thin dough topped with pistachio pesto—has reportedly made people swoon. I haven't tried Vetri's pizza place yet, but it's on my list for my next trip to Philly, along with the flagship Vetri Ristorante.

Vetri is expanding his family of restaurants, having just opened an Osteria in Moorestown, N.J. He's also found time to produce two cookbooks, “Rustic Italian Food,” which celebrates Italy's handcrafted cuisine and advocates a return to the hands-on basics of cooking, and “ viaggio di vetri,” which chronicles his culinary journey from Philly to California, Italy, New York and back to Philly and includes some 125 recipes for his most-requested dishes.

As if this weren't enough, Vetri gives back to the community in huge portions with the Vetri Foundation for Children, which helps kids experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. The Vetri Family donates 5% of all profits to the foundation and partners with numerous foundations, corporations, organizations and individuals to help fulfill its mission. The foundation also established Eatiquette, a program that brings fresh, healthy meals and family-style service to students and teachers in the lunchrooms of private, charter and public schools across the region.

We're lucky in Santa Fe to have some extraordinary Italian restaurants helmed by some extraordinary chefs. And each of those restaurants has their own unique cuisine and blend of ingredients, the same way that Vetri's eateries do. If you're a fan of authentic Italian cuisine, you must put Vetri's restaurants on your list . You're not only supporting a good cause, but you'll have a meal that, I promise, you will never forget. It's like taking a trip to Italy in the City of Brotherly Love.

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