I sometimes chuckle when people talk about Vetri as one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to hear the praise and to be recognized. But who can say what is the best? One of my best meals was a fried rice ball I ate at a market in Sicily. I was seventeen years old, traveling with my father in his parents' hometown of Enna, in the middle of Sicily. I grew up eating arancine with my grandparents in South Philadelphia, but I had never tried one made by a Sicilian street vendor. At that moment, that little rice ball was the best thing I had ever put into my mouth. And who is to say I was wrong? Perception is a powerful thing. Your best meal could be an elaborate sixteen-course affair at a Michelin three-star restaurant, or a hot dog shared with someone special on a mountaintop. The best meals are more about the moment than they are about the food.
Romano Dal Forno, the Italian winemaker who revolutionized Valpolicella wine, made me understand that. In 2003, while sitting with Romano in his vineyard in Veneto, I asked him, "How long do your wines last in the bottle? How age-worthy are they?" Romano's vineyard is relatively young--about twenty years old--so to ask how long his wines will last is a little presumptuous. He just looked at me and said, "How can I tell you that? Wines last as long as they last. It is a risk. Everything is a risk. When you open a bottle of wine, it depends on everything. In France, I once opened a premier cru Bordeaux at a picnic with my wife, and from the moment I opened it, I could smell its incredible essence. That aroma has remained in my thoughts until this day. I can still smell and taste that bottle. Since then, I've drunk that same wine, that same vintage many times and it has never been quite the same as it was at that picnic. Maybe the wine was the same and the ambience was different. Who knows?"
Romano then looked over at my well-cut head chef, Jeff Michaud, who was sitting with his beautiful fiancée, Claudia. He turned to Claudia and said, "Look at your fiancé . . . handsome, thin, strong. What guarantees do you have that in ten years he will still look like that? What guarantees do any of us have? I've done everything I know to do to ensure that a bottle of my wine that you open in ten years will be memorable, but I cannot see into the future. I don't know under what circumstance you will be opening that wine."
Romano's response stuck with me, and I relate it to my cooking. You may like my spinach gnocchi one night and hate it the next. Like Romano, I cannot see into the future. I don't know under what circumstance you will be eating my food. I could serve you the greatest meal I have ever cooked, but you could be in a horrible mood with a lot on your mind and nothing would taste good.
If I do my job, it is a given that the food itself will be good. The real question is, will you have a great and memorable evening? I hope so. That is what I am trying to achieve. And that is why I don't just cook food at Vetri. I try to create moments--moments that will make people say, "Hey, remember that birthday meal five years ago with our friends . . . we laughed all night . . . that was at Vetri, wasn't it?" Simply put, that is the best kind of meal there is. And I am lucky--indeed, honored--that people come to my "house" to spend the most cherished moments of their lives eating my food, and then go away with a memory they can share with family and friends for years to come.
That experience is at the core of Italian cooking: a great meal shared with family and friends. It is what I learned when I first went to Italy to cook in 1993. And it is what I continue to learn every time I cook with my Italian "family" in Italy. Fresh ingredients and simple preparations are the foundations of Italian cooking, but it is people who bring a great meal to life. 2. The Journey
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to go to Italy. My paternal grandfather, Mario Vetri, was born in Sicily in the town of Enna in 1896. He left there in the 1920s, when the country was in the throes of a depression, immigrating to Philadelphia, where he happened to meet Jenny, the daughter of his neighbors in Enna. They married and my father, Sal, was born in 1936. I was born a generation later, in 1966. On Sundays, we would all go over to my grandparents' house just as the family had done in Sicily. There, we would cook, eat, share stories, and laugh. My grandmother Jenny made all sorts of Italian specialties, like meatballs, eggs in tomato sauce, ricotta cheesecake, and, of course, the seven-fish dinners at holiday time, with fried baccalà (salt cod), fried smelts, and fried squid. She also included a little meat like braciole.
That was my life growing up in Abington, Pennsylvania, just north of Center City Philadelphia. I played basketball, cooked with my family, played guitar. In 1990, I graduated from Drexel University with a degree in marketing and finance, but music was my passion, so I went to Los Angeles to study jazz guitar at the Musician's Institute of America. At school, I didn't have a lot of money, and I took a job cooking at the North Beach Bar and Grill to make ends meet. Cooking came naturally. I had always cooked with my parents and grandparents.
Miles Angelo was the chef at North Beach, and we worked together for a year. When I graduated from school, I had hoped Miles would give me a raise and a more permanent position, but he couldn't, so I decided it was time to move on. My band was trying to make a living playing music, but the gigs paid poorly. I heard Wolfgang Puck was opening a restaurant called Granita, and I inexplicably had a strong urge to work there. What if I just knocked on the door? Would I be offered a job? I gave it a shot. I went to Granita every day for three weeks. Each time I asked the chef, Joseph Manzare, for a job. Each time, he would reply, "I don't have anything." But he was also encouraging, always adding, "Come back another day." The third week, one of his chefs called in sick at the last minute. Joseph yelled out the back door to me, "Do you want to hang around tonight?" I quickly accepted. That night, I worked the line, and after the shift, Joseph asked me if I wanted to come back the next day. I returned to the Granita kitchen every day for six weeks.
I had left North Beach and had very little money, and Joseph wasn't able to pay me anything. But I did eat at the restaurant, and I had saved enough money to keep up with the rent. And every day, I went in, hoping Joseph would offer me a permanent job. Six weeks later, one of the cooks left, and Joseph immediately offered me the position. That year, Joseph Manzare became my mentor. He taught me all the basics I would have learned in culinary school: how to fillet a fish, simmer a rich stock, make reduction sauces, braise tough meats, poach delicate seafood, roast a chicken. Joseph opened my eyes to the beauty of food and guided my hands through the world of fine cuisine.
For the next two years, I steeped myself in Granita and a few other California restaurants. I cooked at night and played guitar in the studio all day with my band. We were trying to record an album, but we weren't getting anywhere. I had also become restless with California cuisine. I was working as the morning chef at a place called Bambu when it dawned on me that the food I was cooking was soulless. Every dish had an identity complex. Broccoli-hazelnut puree served under grilled salmon with a port wine reduction. Enoki mushrooms, black-eyed peas, and corn salsa. Do these things go together? Salsas were made out of everything. The pasta, fashioned from premade sheets, some thick, some thin, was awful. And almost every main course followed the same prescription: make a salsa, put a piece of fish on top, and then make a reduction sauce, whisk butter into it, and add it to the plate. Diners were applauding the food, but I thought it was terrible. I knew I had to get out of LA.
It was 1993, and Joseph had moved on to become the chef at Wolfgang Puck's Spago. We had become good friends and took a Tuesday-night class together in restaurant operations management. I had mentioned to him that I wanted to work in Italy, and one night after class, we stopped by Valentino restaurant, where he introduced me to the owner, Piero Selvaggio.
I told Piero that I had been cooking in California for a few years and was learning all about California cuisine, but that I really wanted to cook Italian. I told him about my Sicilian-born grandfather, Mario, about cooking on Sundays with my whole family, and about how I felt the need to cook in Italy. Piero didn't know me, but he trusted Joseph, and I guess he saw something in me. He told me he knew of a restaurant in northern Italy, in Bergamo, where I could work in the kitchen and live in an apartment the restaurant maintained for the cooks, and he would make some calls. A week went by and I hadn't heard anything, so I called Piero to ask him if he had talked to anyone. I think he was a little annoyed, but he wrote a note and told me to give it to the owner of a restaurant called Frosio, outside Bergamo. The note explained simply that I was a cook in LA and I wanted to work in Italy, and to "please help out any way you can," followed by Piero's signature. That note was all I had. No phone number. No place to stay. No guarantee that I would find work. But I knew I had to go to Italy, so I bought a one-way ticket to Bergamo and boarded a plane with the note and fifteen hundred dollars in my pocket.
After an eight-hour plane trip, a two-hour train ride, a night in a hotel, a one-hour bus journey, and a long walk with a lovely elderly woman who felt bad for me, I made it to Frosio Ristorante just in time for lunch. The chef, Paolo Frosio, spoke only a little English, and I knew very few Italian words. At first, Paolo didn't understand why I was there. I was wearing denim overalls and had a backpack flung over one shoulder and a guitar case slung over the other. Paolo looked down at the note, read through it, suddenly understood, and rolled his eyes. "What I am going to do with you?" he asked me. He looked at his brother, Camillo, and started yelling at him like it was his fault. Paolo knew Piero Selvaggio, so he felt he should help me, but he no longer had an apartment and couldn't give me work. Paolo pursed his lips, looked up, and said, "Go to Taverna. Talk to Pierangelo Cornaro."
Camillo put me in a car and drove about thirty minutes to Taverna Colleoni dell'Angelo in Bergamo. The restaurant was in the high city, known as Bergamo Alta, a walled medi-eval hilltop town with steep cobblestone streets, majestic cathedrals, libraries, museums, shops, pubs, and piazzas. The restaurant's tan awning stretched across the northwest side of Piazza Vecchia, just a few steps away from the magnificent church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which has been turning out famous musicians since 1137.
As we passed the eighteenth-century Contarini Fountain in the center of the piazza, a feeling in my heart grew stronger. We approached the restaurant, walked between the crisply set tables outside under the awning, and entered the main dining area, a regal room with vaulted ceilings, thick stone columns, and huge paintings on the walls. To the left, a black grand piano looked over a set of descending white marble stairs. The floor stretched in every direction with hexagonal terrazzo tiles of ivory, gold, and slate.
Leaning calmly against one of the stone columns was a man who looked like a cross between Napoleon Bonaparte and Tony Orlando. This was the Boss, Pierangelo Cornaro. Camillo said a few words to him, then I approached the man and handed him the note. He read it and started chuckling. A little smile emerged from his thick, cropped mustache and I knew this had happened to him before. He gazed up into the vaulted ceiling as he handed the note to his head chef, Graziano Pinato. They both started laughing. Graziano turned and looked me in the eye as if to tell me something, but he said nothing. Then, the Boss looked at one of his Canadian cooks in training and told him to take me to the restaurant's apartment and show me a bed.
That night, I returned to the taverna and started cooking. My journey in Italy had finally begun.
Excerpted from Il Viaggio Di Vetri by Marc Vetri. Copyright © 2008 by Marc Vetri. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.