A lot of Zoom meetings are taking place to prepare for the opening of Mr. Maurice’s Italian, Marc Vetri’s new rooftop restaurant located at the Ace Hotel in Kyoto, Japan. The hotel and restaurant both debut June 11, with a grand opening planned for later this year when travel is, likely, easier. The Philadelphia-based Vetri, known as one of the top chefs cooking Italian food in the U.S., had to cancel an April trip to Kyoto but says everything is ready to go.
“Italian food is huge in Japan, probably even more than it is here. But I don’t think anyone is making the red sauce-y stuff, like Sal’s meatballs,” Vetri says, referring to a dish named after his father, who’s been known to lend a hand in the kitchen at his son’s restaurants. The chef describes his upcoming restaurant, named for his grandfather, as a fun trattoria with elements of two of his Philly hits, Osteria and the now-closed Amis, and “a good mix of regional food from Italy and South Philly red sauce.”
Mr. Maurice’s is set on the third floor of the Kyoto hotel, with an adjoining rooftop bar that has a wood-burning pizza oven. Zach Kelberman, who’s been cooking at the landmark Vetri Cucina in Philly for the last three years, has been in Japan for a few months helping to set everything up and reporting back home.
The restaurant is named for Vetri’s grandfather on his mother’s side. It’s his older son’s name too. In the 1940s and ’50s, Maurice Rotenberg owned Maurice’s at 211 S. Quince Street in Center City. The upscale eatery was known for its music, thanks to a vast record collection amassed by Rotenberg, who was nicknamed Maurice the Maestro. “If you ask anyone in their late 70s, early 80s, if they remember Maurice’s, they say ‘oh that place was amazing, that’s where we used to go for a special night. That’s where we went for prom,” Vetri says.
When the chef visited Kyoto this past January, the restaurant was almost finished but didn’t have a name. Something with “Sal” came to mind, or maybe even “Maurice’s,” but that felt too elegant for a casual restaurant. Looking around for inspiration, Vetri remembered Mr. Martino’s, the under-the-radar Italian charmer on East Passyunk Avenue that Marc and Maria Farnese opened long before the avenue was a restaurant destination. “I saw Mr. Martino’s and thought, ‘how about Mr. Maurice’s?’” Vetri says. “And they all went nuts over it.”
The connection to the Ace Hotel group came through Khuong Phan, who used to rep Vetri Cucina at public relations agency Bullfrog & Baum. Phan now works for Ace; when the hotel group was planning its first Asia project, Phan approached Vetri to see if he wanted in.
Portland’s Naomi Pomeroy and Los Angeles chef Wes Avila are also opening restaurants at the hotel, which was on track to open in April before COVID-19 interrupted. At this point, Japan is further along in combating the virus than the U.S., and Americans (along with visitors from several other regions) can’t currently enter the country.
It’s not how Vetri expected the process to go. But with restaurants in Philadelphia closed except for takeout, “I’m super thankful that I have this happening, that it’s still going,” he says. “I feel very lucky that we have a restaurant that’s opening — I feel luckier than ever that I signed on to it.”
Vetri, a 2020 finalist for the national James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, opened a second location of his acclaimed Vetri Cucina in the Palms casino-hotel in Las Vegas in 2018. It’s temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Philly’s Vetri Cucina initially closed when coronavirus hit the area, but is now selling takeout versions of its tasting menu. Fiorella, which just opened at 817 Christian Street in February, is serving pasta and sauce to go. “We’ve been handing out thousands of meals,” Vetri says, adding that he’s spent the last two months reconfiguring the restaurants to follow safety protocols, and he’s very ready to reopen.