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Veni, Vidi, Vici... Vetri

KING VETRI: Marc Vetri has created for Philadelphia one of America's best Italian restaurants in the country.

When the accolades for a restaurant start to roll in, you'd think a chef/owner would jump at any opportunity for promotion and profits, right? And of course there's the requisite cookbook deal, media exposure and grand plans for expansion to consider—it's enough to make one dizzy.

But Marc Vetri, who's experienced just such success with his eponymous Italian restaurant, cooks to the beat of a different drummer. While he'll do the occasional culinary show and some teaching, he's hardly a showman of self-promotion. And there are no plans for expansion. Likewise, his low-key, selfdeprecating manner belies the tremendous assurance of his output and his obsessive pursuit of culinary perfection.

Named best mid-Atlantic chef this year by the James Beard Foundation, Vetri is riding a wave of critical and popular acclaim. Bon Appetit recently suggested it might be the best Italian restaurant in America, and The Philadelphia Inquirer ranks it among the city's top four restaurant alongside Le Bec-Fin, Susanna Foo and the Fountain at The Four Seasons Hotel. That's some mighty impressive company for an intimate 35-seat trattoria.

Vetri brings a bold, contemporary sensibility to classic Italian cooking, honed by a two-year education cooking in Italy at the Taverna del Colleoni Dell'Angelo in Bergamo. The flavors of his dishes are simple yet pronounced. He uses innovative flavor combinations and artful presentations to make the most of seasonal foods. Freshness is his muse as he chooses the best ingredients in local farmers markets. He keeps cooking to a minimum and preparations straightforward. "Cooking is about finding ingredients that are indigenous to your area," says Vetri, "and then using the simplest techniques to convey their purity." That is how he learned to cook from master Italian chefs.

An award-winning wine cellar houses more than 5,000 bottles. Its 500 labels feature 17 Italian growing regions as well as distinguished wines from Austria, France, New Zealand, Australia and California.

Opened since 1998, Vetri features a simple dècor of glowing yellow walls and rustic wood floors, accented by colorful Italian ceramic plates and country cookware.

Long, leisurely meals are "like being in a close friend's home," says Vetri, or as he describes it, "a deep culinary massage that leaves you feeling thoroughly satisfied and rejuvenated head to toe."

Vetri's menu changes seasonally, featuring both classic and contemporary Italian dishes made with local ingredients that are hand-selected by Vetri. Renowned for his fresh pasta, Vetri also serves inventive fare such as sweet onion crepe with white truffle fondue, guinea hen breast stuffed with prosciutto and Foie Gras, and sublime Chocolate Polenta Souffle. On Saturday nights he and partner, host and sommelier Jeff Benjamin create customized, multi-course tasting menus for each table. On these special nights, guests are treated to a seamless succession of dishes and wines personalized to each individual's taste. Benjamin, a partner, is known for a keen memory that has generated a great rapport with guests, including an encyclopedic knowledge of ingredients and regional wines.

Dear to Vetri and adding a homey touch to his place are a mahogany cheese cart, a 1958 Faema Urania espresso machine and a lovingly restored 1948 Berkel meat slicer, from which Vetri slices paper thin slices of homemade prosciutto for guests to enjoy. He even built a brick barbecue outside the kitchen door so he could roast goat.

With such limited seating crammed into an intimate space, patrons must have the patience of saints to snag a table, and there are those who "get really angry or frustrated, but many are understanding," says Vetri.

He refuses to bow to pressures to grow, though, saying, "If I expanded this place it wouldn't be the same restaurant."

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