I had a landmark experience in eating last week. It was one of those infrequent happenings that only come along every now and again, if you’re lucky. Like being a Boston Red Sox fan and living in Utah — you’ll probably make it up to Fenway only once or twice in your life, but the experience means everything when you finally do. Walking into Vetri in downtown Philadelphia was like that for me — like going to Fenway and smelling the freshly cut grass, except for me it was the smell of the best pasta in the country.
Marc Vetri received his training in Bergamo, Italy by some of the country’s most noted chefs. Since then, he has opened both his 40-seat restaurant Vetri in 1998 and Osteria in 2007. He’s won several awards for his culinary aptitude, including the prestigious James Beard Award for “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic” in 2005. Even Chef Mario Batali is quoted, saying, “This is possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast,” which is quite the compliment, especially from a man with his own Italian restaurant in New York City.
A few months ago, I saw a segment on Vetri Ristorante on Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate. Iron Chef Michael Simon said that if he had to choose one last meal, he would go to Marc Vetri’s restaurant in Philadelphia. He described how he would order one of everything on the menu and eat it all. After this introduction, I had to go.
A few weeks later, I realized I would be in Philadelphia in February, so I made a reservation. As the date approached I became more and more excited. I studied the menu beforehand to make sure that I ordered the perfect meal; I planned my driving route from the hotel; I even left my schedule open that evening so that nothing could stop me from getting there.
As I pulled up the tiny street that the restaurant was on, I realized I hadn’t thought about parking. I had no cash on me and no knowledge about parking in downtown Philadelphia. Luckily, there was a lot across the street from the restaurant that offered 2-hour parking for $15 — worth every penny.
As I entered the restaurant I was shocked at how small and intimate it was. They sat me and I quickly dove into the menu. After just a few moments of perusing (mostly due to my over-preparedness), this is what I ordered:
- Sweetbreads with Piopini mushrooms and crispy romaine leaves
- Spinach gnocchi with shaved ricotta and brown butter
- Casoncelli with sage and pancetta
Each dish was better than the previous: The sweetbreads with tender mushrooms were almost like an incredible Thanksgiving stuffing. The gnocchi was creamy and decadent. And the Casoncelli, oh the Casoncelli! I can actually say this is the best pasta dish I’ve ever had. It was definitely one of the best meals of my life. I’m so glad that I went.
The wait staff was classy and gracious. They were kind, educated, and made you feel like the only person there. As I was leaving I nudged the manager up front and told him how excited I was about the restaurant. He thanked me and asked where I was from. I told him I was visiting from Utah and would likely be writing a food review on Vetri for Rhombus Magazine.
“And what did you think?” he asked.
“Oh, disgusting. Awful,” I responded with a smile.
We laughed, because of course I was joking. “Best meal ever,” I said, as I walked out the door.
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