With old-world cuisine and new sensibilities, Vetri takes diners on a culinary journey without ever leaving the table.
One of the Italian masterpieces that issues from Vetri: risotto stuffed orata with cannellini bisque.
Ad ogni uccello il suo nido è bello.
It’s an Italian saying that translates as, “To every bird, his own nest is beautiful.” Idiomatically, it’s the closest the Romance language gets to “There’s no place like home.” But at Marc Vetri’s eponymous 30-seat Spruce Street sanctuary, Italy and America and old and new combine. It’s beautiful. It’s home. And there’s no place like it.
“You’re coming into my house—my living room—to eat,” Vetri says. “That’s what we’ve focused on here.” And over 16 years, Vetri and his team have created a dining experience unlike any other in the city, a program that engages with Italy’s culinary history over what feels as intimate as a family dinner. But after launching an ambitious tasting menu to wide acclaim last year, Vetri is still thinking bigger—by getting even smaller.
One of Vetri’s team working in the new upstairs demo kitchen, where Vetri and Leonti offer classes and prepare custom meals for the private dining area.
“We had talked about how to make this restaurant become smaller, if that’s possible,” explains Chef de Cuisine Adam Leonti. “There are things on hand to reach everyone’s desires, but if we’re smaller, we can talk about it ahead of time. It’s like what you would do if you were cooking Thanksgiving dinner. It’s hospitality to its fullest.”
The new private upstairs dining room and kitchen—where Vetri and Leonti offer classes in making everything from pizza to pasta—boast 10 of the most sacred seats in the city. “The new space is even more personal,” Vetri emphasizes. “It just has that warmth—that’s what sets us apart.”
Whether upstairs or down, the menu remains as unequivocal as ever. It’s a traditional quattro piatti format—antipasti, primi, segundi, dolce—but, for the willing, it’s a culinary journey where diners put themselves in Leonti’s capable hands. You’re given a set of options, but barring any requests or restrictions, Leonti prepares a marathon menu with impeccably paired Italian wines from Vetri’s 2,500-bottle cellar and surprises along the way. It takes time—two to three hours—but it’s awash in centuries of tradition.
Sumptuous almond tortellini and spinach gnocchi.
“There’s a great recorded history in Italian food starting from Apicius [a 4th-century collection of recipes that have informed the cuisine ever since] and making its way all the way up to now,” Leonti says. And while many of Vetri’s dishes have been on the menu since it opened, their reputations in our collective memory remain justified.
Pastas are the stars: bouncy fusilli topped with lobster and sweetened by saffron, tender spinach gnocchi in brown butter, and supple almond tortellini with truffle sauce, the perfect unification of high concept and humble origin. “It’s unique because it can taste rather extravagant, but the ingredients are modest,” Leonti concedes.
And though the dishes are inspired by a Continental culinary history, Leonti and Vetri emphasize crafting local permutations of faraway offerings. “I’m really leaning towards getting everything the way it was a hundred years ago,” Vetri says. “Here’s the animal; use it. Flush out the middleman. Animal to plate. Plate to person.”
Adam Leonti and Marc Vetri in the restaurant dining room.
That vision—in umamiexuding morels in a foie gras-infused puff pastry “sandwich” or Lancasterborn goat capretto roasted over pine and oak, braised in milk, and served with polenta that’s milled in-house—inform Vetri’s vision, a restaurant aware of history, but pleased with the present.
“What is our identity?” Leonti ruminates. “It’s like technology—once you make running water, you don’t go back. And when you go to Rome, every single restaurant serves a amatriciana, because it’s amazing. When you go to Bergamo, they’re going to serve tortelli with zucca or squash agnolotti. That stuff’s going to happen for a good reason—what are you going to make better?” 1312 Spruce St., 215-732-3478