Mario Batali dubbed it the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast. Alan Richman said it was the best Italian restaurant in the US. Gourmet included it in their top 50 in the country. Craig LeBan gave it 4 bells and called it “our very best”. Needless to say, Vetri doesn’t need a publication like this one to confirm it’s greatness. It’s great. But it is also very, very expensive. The only dining option, every day, is the $135 fixed-price tasting menu. If you want to pair wines with each course, that’s another $90. Unless you’re a bonafide blue blood Main Liner, this isn’t a casual night out.

So, the real question here is not whether it is great, but whether it is worth it. $135, of course, affects everyone differently. But, based on one experience, the opinion here is that, if you can swing it, it is worth going at least once, because this is one of the most unique and special dining experiences in the area.

The way the tasting menu works is a bit strange. There’s a menu, listing all the available dishes that night, but you don’t actually order from it. The waiter will ask you if there is anything in particular that you must try, or that you want to avoid, but otherwise it is the chef’s choice. Before going through it, I thought this was a bit of a cop out. Either let me order, and get exactly what I want, or just bring me food. Don’t show me what I am missing!

Based on one experience, I’d certainly recommend putting yourself in the chef’s hands, because the most enjoyable dishes were the ones I would never have ordered, such as a sweet onion crepe with white truffle (pictured above) that had been slow roasted for 10 hours. I typically don’t love onions in a leading role, but this was so sweet and succulent that it was easily the best bites of onion I’ve encountered. I also probably would have avoided the Texas antelope with squash and Amarone sauce – because antelope tends to be very, very lean, and thus also lean on flavor. But that tangy, tasty sauce more than made up for it! On the other hand, I was desperate to try the chestnut fettuccine with boar and cocoa, but was mildly disappointed with the result. It was tasty, but not transcendent.

Not everyone gets the same dishes, so the more people at the table, the better the likelihood of trying multiple dishes. As such, it’s worth going with more than just 2 people (although there is only one table that seats 6 or more), and choosing dining companions who are willing to share plates. Otherwise you might not get to try the wonderfully sweet and sour squash caramelle (kinda like ravioli) with mostarda.

The way dinner is served – in a seemingly never-ending parade of small plates – does make the value proposition go up. Though there is less on each plate, of course, the attention to detail and culinary technique shown on plate after plate certainly helps diners feel like they are getting their money’s worth. In addition, it makes the meal more interesting. A few bites, and then the wait for the next mystery plate to be revealed. Theater? Perhaps, but at these prices, it’s not unfair to expect a show of some kind.

The wine service, of course, is also quite serious, with several sommeliers prowling the dining room at any given time. We chose to order by the bottle instead of the pairing, trying to keep the bill somewhat reasonable. The selection of bottles in the value range (here $40-70) was decent, with a huge selection of interesting Italian varietals.

Unfortunately, the wine service also delivered the only disappointing aspect of our experience. Though there’s much formality and showmanship (please bear with us while we season your wine glasses, sir), the sommelier who helped us most often was a bit of a bully. Instead of listening to me and suggesting wines based on my preferences, he stubbornly stuck to his own suggestions while indifferently brushing aside my input. Towards the end of the meal, he used the fact that our food was coming out of the kitchen to pressure me into buying a wine that had an absurd markup (more so than most), which left me especially displeased. Though I understand the sommelier is a salesman to some extent, leaving the customer feeling taken is hardly good service.

Though it was certainly a shame to have that one aspect of the experience fall flat, it wasn’t enough to tar my overall impression of Vetri. It’s a unique format, with creative, yet traditional fare that’s expertly prepared and served. If you’ve never been, find a way to get here.

1312 Spruce St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Reservations: Open Table
There are two seatings each night: for 2-4 people, 630 and 830. For 5+ people, 6 and 9. For weekend days, call or check online 2 months ahead.

Note: image retrieved from Vetri’s Flickr Feed.

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