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Chef Adam Leonti on Vetri's Evolution and Expansion

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In 2012, about one year after instating the tasting menu-only format at Vetri, chef de cuisine Adam Leonti was named one of 16 members of the inaugural class of Eater Young Guns. Today, after 16 years in business, Vetri has just completed a substantial renovation to its upper floors, expanding its capacity and scope beyond the tiny 30-seat dining room. The new space allows for private dining, cooking classes, and an ambitious program that will see the restaurant milling flour from its own custom-grown varieties of wheat.

Back in 2012, Leonti told Eater he "would just like to get better at cooking." Here, we check back in to see how that's been working out for him.

Vetri Upstairs_Dining Room_Photo Credit Steve Legato.jpg
Private dining at Vetri. [Photo: Steve Legato]

Eater Philly: So in 2012, when you were named an Eater Young Gun, you'd been in charge of the kitchen at Vetri for just about a year. You helped usher in the tasting-menu-only format that Vetri is so well-known for now — could you recap the how and why of that transition?
Adam Leonti: Well, I had already worked for Marc Vetri for a couple of years, but in 2010, I moved to Italy with the idea of living there permanently. About six or seven months in, Marc called and asked if I wanted to be the chef here, so — change of plans. We'd been doing an a la carte restaurant that was tasting-only on Fridays and Saturdays, but my dear friend (and, at the time, general manager) Bill McKinley felt that our best foot was always forward when we were doing tasting menus. That was when we were best able to translate what we were doing into the language that everyone else was speaking.

The problem was, if you came in for an a la carte meal, and you ordered, say, goat and gnocchi: Well, if you like spinach gnocchi (which most people do), but you don't like goat — which I'd say 30% of people don't — you had a mediocre experience. And it's not because the goat was made wrong, you know, it's just not for everyone. But you've heard about it, and you've read all these food writers going on about the goat, this amazing goat—and then you're not exactly blown over the moon, to the blame of no one. What's to blame is how it's presented. It's still a very foreign cuisine, Italian cuisine. People don't always realize exactly how different it is from American cuisine. And to stay true to the cuisine, we had to kind of put it into a format that would make it easier for people to understand it. They get guidance, they give input, we adapt, and the whole experience doesn't ride on one dish. That being said, we also needed to have a lot of things for dietary restrictions, because we didn't want to exclude anybody. We always want to try to include everybody.

Our greatest strength is the size of the restaurant — we can only seat a max of 30 people at any given time. So if you walk in and you're gluten-free or you just don't like something, it's not an issue, because there are so many things on hand and we're only cooking for a few other people at a time. So we can cook off the cuff. And we have a large repertoire built up over the last 16 years. We have all this history behind us, all those recipes — we can now use those all the time, whether or not they're on the menu.

So now, the menu is separated between di pesce, di verdure, di terra, and dolce — they're not in order of appetizer, entrée, or anything. Really, it's just for you to look at so that you can tell us if there's anything on there you love or hate or can't eat. You can tell us if you don't like sweetbreads — but you don't know how they'd come out, you don't know if they're an entrée or if they're a pasta… well, unless you know all the pasta names out there, which most people don't. And then we can bring out a course, and we can watch your reaction and talk to you, and then we know where to go forward from there.

People just started leaving here much happier. The amount of letters of positive response increased dramatically — I got one this morning, from someone telling me it was the best meal of their life. And it's really because of that format. You can just say: I don't eat this, I do eat this, and mostly I want to sit and relax for a few hours and enjoy my anniversary — and we can go forward. We have a lot more return guests now, as compared to when people would come in and point to the goat and get the goat and then if they didn't go crazy for the goat, they'd just never come back.

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[Photo: Steve Legato]

Ordering a la carte just doesn't feel that Italian either, right, at least not for a special occasion? I mean, I don't have a ton of experience in Italy — I've only been there once — but I don't think I had a single sit-down meal where I ordered two things and just got those two things.
Right, and it was a subject that needed to be approached, but we couldn't assume people would come in knowing. Still, when most people think Italian, they think Italian-American, which is this whole other great genre that's just not at what we do here.

So it was March 15, 2011 that we changed over to tasting-menu-only. And when I ran into you guys in 2012, we had had a year under our belts of this new format, figuring out how to improve it. For the first two or three months, we found ourselves dragging on time, so the dinner experience was just taking too long. Some of these 18+-course tasting menus out there can just go on a really long time, and no one really wants to sit down for four-and-a-half hours, in my opinion. Maybe a very select few do, but I don't, and I don't want people here to be expected to do that. It's not about us or about me showing them what I can do. It's about them having options for dinner that we think that they would like and that stays true to a cuisine that has been working with seasonal produce for 2700 years. The "me" part doesn't exist. I'm a part of the restaurant itself, I'm a piece of equipment.

So, we found out where to get stronger, we found out how to do a little bit better wine pairing… I mean, from the start, everything was always of the highest quality that we could ever find and manage, but it just took time to really dial it all in. That all happened in the first year.

It seems like a huge transition. But it sounds like that format and that adaptability was something you all felt that you had to move towards?
Yes. That was what had to happen. It had to. Or we were going to become a dinosaur. A la carte is a great way to dine at, say, Osteria. That's a side of Italian cuisine it just works really well with — you know, pizza, pasta. You'll see a few items on there that are a sweetbread this or a veal kidney that, but they're very easy to avoid. And maybe you'll go there for your anniversary, but it's not as intimate, it's not as sexy and dark. You know, Vetri is just a special place. At the time, a lot of folks had thought fine dining was dead, and for me, it was like, I wish there was more of it. Like, I wish people would cook more at home and eliminate that style of dining that's, like, just places for food to go in your stomach. Make that stuff at home yourselves, and then when you go out, really go out to eat something special. You'd be like "Hey, I cook all the time, I'm not going to eat that garbage. I am going to go out, and sit down, and I'm going to have someone take care of me and my loved ones, and we're going to take a couple of hours and we're really going to remember it." I don't think that will ever go away. But no one was really doing it; there wasn't a lot of fine dining left in the city. So for us to do it and really continue, we had to change.

So, it wasn't just Eater Young Guns for you in 2012 — you were also named to Forbes 30 Under 30; it was a pretty big year for you as far as that kind of attention goes — but you had already been hand-picked by Marc Vetri to lead his namesake restaurant. Given that you'd already been given that vote of confidence, did the media attention change anything for you?
No, because what I had sought out when I got into cooking… I hadn't reached it yet. If I were to have reached that, then maybe I would be more interested in promotion, because it would be necessary. But what I was working on at the time, and what we're working on now — and this area here upstairs is just an extension of that — is versing myself in the cuisine of Italy that's disappearing and carrying on that tradition here. And also to take up the aspect of cooking for people that's truly special, to be for an occasion, not just for sustenance, and not even for excitement — it's not about, like, "new and hot." It's about the actual occurrences in people's lives, and how we can make that be part of it.

And if this place didn't exist, I would've tried to find some leadership somewhere else. It just happened to be that Marc was amazing and we crossed paths and I've taken him as a great mentor and continue to do so — he's still here almost every day — and, you know, I knew I needed that relationship too, because I couldn't do it myself. I needed a guy like that, I needed a Bill McKinley, I needed a Jeff Benjamin to come to me and say "Hey, this guest wasn't happy about something, I need you to sit down and write him a letter." They're all parts that make the whole thing happen. And that right there occupies enough. But I think when you've got even more experience, and that kind of stuff becomes less new, then you seek to get your name and what you're doing out there.

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[Photo: Steve Legato]

Ok, so let's talk a little about this new space, then. There are still a few tiny finishing touches to be done, but you've already started using it. What kind of things have you hosted here so far?
We had a dinner last night, for six people that were discussing business. We also had a graduation, we had an anniversary of 32 years, and an 81st birthday. So all parties, so far. And tonight we're hosting an aperitivo, like a cocktail hour.

How many people can you host up here?
So the max seating is 16, and the capacity of the room is around 20.

And do you have events planned other than just private dining?
Absolutely. We'll be hosting some special dinners, like later this month, we have a dinner with Sara Maule from Nino Negri winery which is in the province where I worked in Italy and where Marc worked and we've both studied a lot. So she'll be here hosting a dinner with her wines, and talking about their winemaking tradition of 700 years, and her father being a winemaker. She grew up in the vineyards. That should be really cool. [Ed. note: You'll find more details on all of Vetri's upcoming events at the bottom of this page.]

And then we're going to have cooking classes in the kitchen here. I really want to focus on pasta-making. I'd like to help people to understand all that "healthy" could mean, in a larger sense. We're doing a lot with fresh wheat, which I think is a little misunderstood — if you ask a bunch of people what gluten is, not that many people even know. It's fairly rare to have celiac disease, so what is it that so many people are running away from? I can kind of understand that when a product has sat in a basement for two years before it's even come to your door, and who knows what's crossed it — it could make you feel kind of kind of gross.

And Marc Vetri has also written about wanting to revive heirloom varieties of wheat so that we're not all just eating one kind of the stuff, and it sounds like you're now directly working on making that happen.
Yup, at Washington State University they have something like 40,000 different kinds of wheat, and we're working on getting some growing here now, as we speak. Finding some things that can really work with our climate, and then learning how to use them. For instance, there's so much rain it can actually wash away a lot of the protein—which is fine, you don't actually need super high-protein everything, you just need to learn how to use the flour you have. So we can do classes right here and really teach people how to use it, to know how to work with different products—and also where they can get it, even how they can mill it.

We want to teach people how to use the product in a beautiful way. There's an element of simplicity that's great, and then there's an element of simplicity that's just really boring. Like… say you get a sweet potato from a farmer's market. You could just steam it, and you could eat it, and that would be ok. But you're probably not going to rush home for that steamed sweet potato. But if you were to take that sweet potato, and maybe add some fresh nuts — grind them up and make some flour with it — you could make gnocchi that would be pretty damn good. And it's still healthy, but it's just a little bit different. That's not information that people are just born with, but we could give it to them and help them along. And then, you know, it's just fun, too. Who doesn't like a cooking class?

And you're going to be milling your own flours right upstairs from here, right? What's the timeline on that?
Next month. Everything's here already.

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The second-floor kitchen, adjacent to the private dining room. [Photo: Steve Legato]

Do you feel like, given Vetri's reputation, you have sort of a responsibility to do more of this kind of stuff that you don't necessarily have to do, that not everyone is doing?
Well, the most important thing to me is that it's not gimmicky. I don't ever want to go for gimmicks; I'm not ever trying to look for anything other than to better what we offer to people who walk through the door here. If anything, I might prefer not even to tell people that we milled it. I like the idea that someone eats something and is thinking to themselves, "Why is that so fucking good?" And then you tell them. Y'know, well, "we just milled this this morning at 7:30 and made your pasta with it." Then they'll get it.

I think sometimes people hear about these kinds of elaborate food projects, and if they're not totally given to being automatically excited about it, they might think it sounds snobby, or just extraneous, or like you said, gimmicky.
Yeah, and I really try not to over-advertise. I mean, communicating what you're doing and getting that out there is a necessary part of the business, but I really hate it. The hype, I mean. The yelling about, like, our coffee's fresher than your coffee, or whatever. I'd like to think that when people come here, they have come to expect that we're putting our best into it, that they can taste it immediately without us bragging about it. Later, we can tell them, in an unobtrusive way, how it happened. People like to learn, but I don't want to sit around and lecture anybody. I just try to have that balance.

What exactly is it you hate about hype in general? Is it that people are going to have their expectations blown out of proportion, just people coming in with expectations based on what they've read?
Exactly. If people come in with just the idea that they want to have a good time, then we have a much better shot. We can give people that.

Do you find it's better or worse at a place like Vetri, which is not somewhere everyone can easily afford? Does that filter out some of the people looking to come in to be disappointed, because it's seen as so special and some of them may have saved up to come, or are people that much more critical because of the price point?
When you get someone who's saved up to come here, they're 100% here to enjoy. If you get someone that doesn't have to, then sometimes — not always, but on rare occasions — you have someone that's immediately looking to judge, not to enjoy. But I do think those people still get satisfied. I do hear, "Oh my god, I was coming here to hate it, and I loved it." Still, it's like… wow, why did you come here if you wanted to hate it? Why would you do that? Are you out of your mind? You should come here to love it, and then love it. But to some people, it's a little more about entertainment, about being like a television show, than it is about what it is for me—and that's maybe where we just don't understand each other's background.

But I've been doing this long enough to kind of recognize what's going on and then, you know, kind of play around with them a little bit. If they're expecting one thing, we can certainly do something else. We have so many great things that we keep hidden, that's one of our greatest strengths. You might not expect, you know, morels foraged by our friend Ian [Brendle] and stuffed with pork mousse and deep fried. People look at something like that and think "…morels stuffed with pork mousse? Is that even Italian?" And like, that's very Italian. They love to fry shit. They love to stick pork mousse in stuff. And that's the kind of thing, where, maybe it wasn't on the menu and maybe you came here to hate it, but you can't hate that. That's the kind of thing we try to do.

So, finally, to change direction completely: you're kind of a cookbook nut, right? Is there anything right now that you're very into or would recommend?
Here, Leonti kind of lit up and started pulling books off of shelves from every corner, even running upstairs to retrieve more, so we turned the recorder off and tried to keep up. But here are a few titles he highlighted:

· Taste and Tradition, Volumes 1 and 2, by Roberta Corradin, Jann Huizenga, and Paola Rancati,
· Le Ricette Regionali Italiane, by Anna Gosetti della Salda (NB: This is a hefty reference, and it's in Italian.)
· Savoring Italy, by Carol Field, Marilyn Costa, and Robert Freson
· Pizza: Seasonal Recipes from Rome's Legendary Pizzarium, by Gabriele Bonci

Details on all of the upcoming events and cooking classes in the new upstairs space at Vetri can be found here. The pasta and fish classes scheduled for July are already sold out, but there will be more classes posted in months to come. There are several dinners coming up in addition to the winemaker dinner Leonti mentioned above, including one with farmer Ian Brendle of Green Meadow Farm and one with chefs from Bar Marco in Pittsburgh.

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