Source, USA Today, Larry Olmsted
The scene: Superstar chef Marc Vetri, a James Beard Award winner and former Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef winner, who trained extensively in Italy, is best known for his elevated takes on Italian cuisine at his acclaimed upscale Philadelphia eateries Vetri Ristorante, Osteria, Amis and Alla Spina. But no form of Italian cuisine is as beloved in this country as the humble pizza, and while it took him years to get around to it, Vetri — along with acclaimed partner chefs Jeff Michaud, another James Beard Award winner, and Brad Spence, a James Beard Award finalist — now operates a successful mini-chain of four pizzerias bearing his name. Three are in Pennsylvania, including a flagship in Philadelphia’s culinary hot spot, Rittenhouse Square, and another at the Philadelphia Art Museum. The third is a fast casual, order at the counter location within the nation’s second largest shopping mall in suburban King of Prussia. There is also a full-service Pizzeria Vetri in the nation’s capital, on D.C.’s hot 14th Street corridor.
Vetri brings a sense of fun and energy to his pizzerias, and that is reflected in the modern, lively design. Each location is slightly different but the main Philly and D.C. locations have many things in common. Each is built around an open kitchen with a towering dome-shaped pizza oven as a centerpiece, so the entire production is front and center – there are even bar seats around the ovens so you can watch the staff craft your pizza, from spreading the dough to topping to baking. There’s a bar with another option for counter seating that serves only carefully selected wines and beers, mostly regional craft selections, and indoor and outdoor seating, the latter popular with dog lovers. Bare concrete floors and high ceilings create the feel of one big communal room, sort of like a beer hall ambiance, while the red and white tile walls add to the Italian theme. It’s the kind of place that serves many purposes well, from date nights to family dinners, business lunches and after-work happy hour. The creative and playful nature of Pizzeria Vetri is not just in the design and atmosphere, it clearly rolls over into the cooking with some offbeat signature menu items.
Reason to visit: Rotolo, any pizza, fried dough dessert
The food: Today there are more “gourmet” pizzerias in this country than you could count, many of them built with the assumption that having a high temperature, Italian-style, wood burning oven is enough to make them great. It’s not, and I’ve seen many such efforts that underwhelm. The most successful executions, beloved previous Great American Bites pizza spots like Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix or Harry’s in South Florida, work because they focus on an excellent crust and first-rate ingredients used in creative ways, along with appetizers and desserts that shine with or without pizza. It’s the same logic behind successful fine dining restaurants, which tend to be driven by the best quality products and not surprisingly, all three examples are the work of acclaimed James Beard Award-winning chefs, including Chris Bianco and Harry’s Michael Schwartz. Vetri and his partners take the same meticulous approach and the results are utterly delicious.
The crust is made from whole grain flour, something that I’m a huge fan of in theory but is difficult to execute in practice without getting heavy or dense. Vetri succeeds, and you probably won’t even notice that it’s whole grain, which means it is better for you, and also has a richer depth of flavor in a not-so-humble dough — an extensively tested proprietary recipe that takes three full days to make. I’ve had a lot of great pizzas around the world and this is among the very best crust I’ve ever tasted. It’s thin and just a little bit crispy from a quick three-minute cook at 650°, but still soft, a near perfect consistency, with lots of wood oven flavor and puffy, slightly charred crust bubbled up, especially near the edges.
With this delicious base it would be tough to go wrong, but Vetri piles on high-quality ingredients, that are better than what the vast majority of pizzerias use, so that even the basic Margherita shines with farmers market fresh basil bursting with flavor and high-quality fresh mozzarella. There are several preset selections, which I recommend because they are very carefully balanced, or you can create your own. The house specials are where the creativity shines, like the Tone, which uses excellent Sicilian tuna along with onion, mozzarella, tomato sauce and fiery pepperoncini peppers. The very popular Crudo is simple and sublime, sauceless and topped with prosciutto crudo (the Parma or San Daniele style best known in this country), true buffalo milk mozzarella and real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese — it’s fabulous. The Granchio is the only pizza I’ve ever seen on any menu topped with Maryland Blue Crab, the same used in the famous Chesapeake Bay crab cakes, plus mozzarella and peppers. All come in two sizes, for one to two people or three to four, and it’s so hard to choose that I recommend going with more people and splitting several smaller pies. There are a wide range of less common ingredients used in other signature selections, toppings like fresh asparagus, eggs, eggplant, roasted fennel and scamorza cheese.
You don’t need any reason to visit Pizzeria Vetri beyond the fabulous pies, but Vetri and his partners give you several more, most notably Rotolo, the signature appetizer, invented by chef Spence. It’s pizza dough layered with mortadella (bologna), ricotta cheese and a fabulously tasty pistachio pesto, then rolled, cut into pinwheel rounds, baked and glazed with olive oil. It sounds great but tastes even better with an amazing texture that’s crispy on the outside, and soft, warm, airy and chewy on the inside, almost like a savory take on the best cinnamon buns. While the ricotta is creamy and obviously very high quality, the mortadella becomes almost fried in the oven into bacon-like crisps, and the entire dish is a jaw dropping, profound and decadent mix of tastes and textures. Miniature versions of the substantial Rotolo are a happy hour special every weekday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. for just two bucks, and you won’t be able to stop eating them. The same goes for the signature dessert menu, a standout among standouts that entails a Nutella pizza with marshmallows, homemade cannoli and homemade gelato. It’s hard to rise above that selection, but the one to try is the highly addictive fried pizza dough, a riff on zeppole that’s warm, light bites of endless joy covered in superfine crystallized sugar, which works much better than the standard powdered confectioners sugar you usually get. It’s worth the extra fee to add the optional Nutella spread for dipping, but it’s great on its own.
Without much pomp and circumstance, Pizzeria Vetri wows from start to finish, always has something different you’ll want to come back for, and is a fun place to eat and drink — the kind of spot that I’d be visiting at least once weekly if it were in my neighborhood.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, pizza fans will be wowed.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mom, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$-$$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Three locations in and around Philadelphia and one in Washington, D.C.;pizzeriavetri.com