Marc Vetri's eponymous restaurant turned 15 years old last night, and that's a big deal. Considering the average lifespan of a restaurant today, that's reason enough to celebrate. But, Vetri has done a lot more than just survive for a decade and a half. Both Vetri and his flagship restaurant have done more good for the Philly restaurant renaissance in the late 90s and early aughts than anyone else. More importantly, Vetri was a real source of pride for the Philly food set in a time period when Tastykakes and cheesesteaks were all the outside world thought we had to offer. It was 1998, after all.
Within two years of opening on Spruce Street, Vetri scored a 4-Bell review from the notoriously stickler-ish Philadelphia Inquirer critic, Craig LaBan. Soon after, the national accolades started rolling in for Vetri and his Italian ristorante. It landed on the list as one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the U.S. by Gourmet magazine, and Marc Vetri won a Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2005. Vetri Ristorante was a finalist for the 2012 James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Award, which is given to eateries that demonstrate excellence in food, atmosphere, and service for 10 or more consecutive years. Vetri is often referred to as "the best Italian restaurant in the country" by chef Mario Batali and has received immense praise from legendary critics like GQ's Alan Richman and Frank Bruni and Adam Platt of The New York Times. Iron Chef and star of The Chew, Michael Symon, said that if he had to choose a last meal before shuffling off this mortal coil, it would be the Vetri tasting menu. That's a lot of love.
Vetri means just as much (if not more) to the wave of homegrown talent that now runs Philly. Once Vetri was established as arguably the best restaurant in Philly—along with Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin, which was the previous tenant at 1312 Spruce—it attracted the very best young cooks in town, all looking to learn how to be great. And as it turns out, Marc Vetri ended up being as talented a teacher and mentor as he is a chef. If you need any proof, here's a sampling of his former students and their accolades.
· Mike Solomonov - Owner of Zahav and the Federal Donuts mini-franchise. Winner of James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.
· Joey Baldino - Owner of Zeppoli. Semifinalist for James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. Zeppoli was named one of the 50 Best New Restaurants of 2012 in Bon Appetit.
· Jeff Michaud - Owner of Osteria. Winner of James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. Author of Eating Italy.
· Chip Roman - Owner of Blackfish, Mica, and Ela. Semifinalist for James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. Mica was named one of GQ's 10 Best New Restaurants in America in 2012. Blackfish was ranked #1 in The Philly Mag 50 in 2011.
· Jim Burke - Executive Chef of Daniel Boulud's Cafe Moderne. Former owner of James in Philadelphia, ranked #3 in The Philly Mag 50 in 2011. Named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2008.
Lastly, the success of Marc Vetri's 15-year-old restaurant led to the creation of the Vetri Foundation for Children, which ranks Marc at or near the top of the heap as the Philly food scene's biggest philanthropist. The Vetri Foundation is behind the annual Great Chefs event, which is the biggest fundraiser for Alex's Lemonade Stand, and regularly raises more than $1 million each and every year to help battle childhood cancer.
Vetri's dedication to young people doesn't stop at fundraising, either. He was the driving force behind "Eatiquette," an overhaul of the Philly School District lunch program. Vetri developed the menu to replace the "chuckwagon"-style food with healthy, and affordable options to the school children, and teach them about eating right. That's a whole lot of do-gooding.
You'd be hard pressed to find a more well-rounded and talented chef in any corner of the world than what we have in Marc Vetri. So, congratulations, Marc. And happy birthday to Vetri, the little 30-seat restaurant that quietly started it all 15 years ago.