Saturday, January 11, 2014

Philadelphia Weekend

The day after Christmas we hopped in the car and took ourselves on a little 3-day getaway for eating, drinking, and general touristy stuff.  Our criteria was simple:

  • Not more than a three hour drive from north Jersey
  • Great restaurants
  • Pampering hotels
  • Walkable
  • Good sightseeing 
Ding, ding!  And the answer is? What is Philadelphia?

An easy drive down the NJ Turnpike and two hours later we were checking in to the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. Smack in the heart of Philadelphia’s Center City, the Loews had everything we wanted – affordable rates, prime location, on-site bar (for that all-important pre-dinner cocktail), knowledgeable concierge, and free parking. Besides all that, we were upgraded to a high-level floor with gorgeous views of the City of Brotherly Love. William Penn, perched high atop City Hall, bid me good morning every day, and what a way to start the day!

Of course, I had done my homework re restaurants, museums, history sights, etc. At the top of the list (and for our first night) was Vetri. The restaurant sighted by Mario Batali as “possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast,” and by Alan Richman as “probably the best Italian restaurant in America,” was a must. I managed to get a 6:45pm reservation, and after a brisk walk, we arrived.  Situated in a lovely townhouse, Vetri, headed by chef/owner Marc Vetri, has only one type of dining experience – a tasting menu. I usually veer away from tasting menus because they are expensive and you rarely get enough to eat. But after reading about Vetri’s tasting menu, I was confident this would be different. Yes, it was expensive, but there was so much food, at one point, I considered telling them to not bring the next course.  Then I thought, “are you insane, you will probably never be back here again, bring it on!”  The food was exquisite. As was the service.

Before I begin, you will notice there is only one photo of our dinner at Vetri in this post.  Being an enthusiastic food blogger, I take pictures of almost all my meals (just in case I might write about them). But the atmosphere at Vetri was rarified. Not that it was pretentious or stuffy; on the contrary, it was very warm and welcoming. It was like dining in Chef Vetri’s home (one could only wish for that opportunity!) and taking photos in “his home” just didn’t feel right. I didn’t even feel that it was appropriate to take notes, so most of this is from my delicious memories!

As soon as you are seated, the wait staff offers you Prosecco and a plate of luscious stuzzichini (hors d’oeuvres). This consisted of probably the best olives I’ve ever had, house-cured salami, pastrami-spiced foie gras on toast (killer!), raw vegetables with a balsamic crema, and fabulous bread. Then the parade of courses begins.

As the staff explains, even though this is a tasting menu, each guest at the table receives a different item, this way you can sample more of the chef’s work. The first course is di pesce (fish). We were treated to Bocconcini di Baccala (small bites of delicious cod) and Pappardelle with Cockles and Tardivo. While I loved the luscious pasta in this second dish, the cockles, for my taste, were too salty and fishy. When I didn’t finish the dish, the server graciously offered to bring me a different fish item.

Next up, Di Verdure (vegetables). A Sweet Onion Crepe with Truffle Fondue was otherworldly. Delicious onions sautéed and enveloped in tender crepes with a delicate truffle sauce. Our second vegetable dish was the Ricotta Ravioli with Wild Pecan. One of the many things Vetri is known for is their pasta. I can’t begin to tell you how good these ravioli were. Which, for a food blogger, is not exactly a positive thing (LOL!).  These little pillows of fragrant ravioli filled with wild pecan were heavenly.

Di Terra (from the earth) was the next course. The famous Vetri Tortellini Pie, which is a distant relative of the timpano or timballo (see the movie “Big Night” for an in-depth course on timballo), is a fabulous little package of pastry-wrapped tiny “polpette” (pork, veal, and beef meatballs) with a “mortedella mousse Bolognese” topped with a velvety béchamel sauce. And if it couldn’t possibly get any better, it’s served with a 25-year old balsamic from Modena.  Follow this link to see Vetri Chef de Cuisine, Adam Leonti, making it. This was my favorite dish at Vetri.  The other earth course was Chestnut Fettuccine with Wild Boar Ragu. I must admit that before my dinner at Vetri, I had never tasted wild boar. This is a dish based on Chef Vetri’s days in Tuscany. He adds a bit of cocoa powder to cut the gaminess and enhance the flavor of the chestnut fettuccine.  One word, succulent!

Vetri’s sommelier will pair wines for each course, but we opted for a bottle of a delicious 2011 Barbera d’Alba that went beautifully with each course.

And, finally, Dolce (dessert). But Vetri doesn’t just bring your designated desserts. No, first there is “pre-dessert.” At this point, I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to take a picture! 

I would have been good with our little plate of luscious chocolates and cookies, but we were treated to a delicious Chocolate Polenta Souffle and a delicate Pistachio Flan with Milk Chocolate Gelato.

When you finally must leave this lovely cocoon of fine dining, the staff gives you a small bag with samples of Vetri’s wonderful coffee cake to savor with your next morning’s coffee. OK, they had me at “hello,” but that was the icing on the cake (so to speak).

Our meal at Vetri ranks in my top all-time meals. The first being Steirereck, in Vienna, the second, Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse in California. And now, Vetri, is added to that list. If you have the chance, go. It is not to be missed. Mario Batali and Alan Richman were right.

Part two of our Philly trip next week, where I will tell you about the second best meal of the trip – DiNic’s roast pork sandwich.

1312 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

1200 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107


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