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1 year in, chef Marc Vetri reflects on his Las Vegas neighborhood

“Not to be mean or anything, but I’ve been over there once,” says Marc Vetri, seated in his restaurant on the top floor of the PalmsIvory Tower, gesturing almost dismissively at its sweeping, panoramic view of the Las Vegas Strip.

“I go that way,” he continues, pointing in the opposite direction, toward the west side of the valley, “and I go to the suburban restaurants.”

“When I’m here, I go to see Esther’s (Kitchen), see Other Mama. I want to go that way to see La Strega,” he continues, referencing some of the valley’s top off-Strip restaurants. “Because that’s what I get psyched about — when young chefs open things, and they’re sticking it all into it, their heart and soul.”

The Philadelphia-based Vetri’s support for neighborhood dining in Las Vegas goes further than the occasional visit and name dropping a few hot spots in an interview. He’s hosted Brian Howard of Sparrow + Wolf and James Trees of Esther’s Kitchen and Ada’s for multi-course collaborative feasts as part of his Guest Chef dinner series. For the next meal in the series, he’s invited Dan Krohmer (Other Mama, Hatsumi, La Monja) to join him in his kitchen on Nov. 19 to create a celebratory meal for Vetri Cucina’s one-year anniversary.

‘Just never felt right’

The chef’s preference for small neighborhood restaurants may explain why it took him so long to come to Las Vegas.

“I’ve been asked to go out there probably four times over the last 20 years or so,” he says. “I went out there to look at things, and it just never felt right. They always wanted a huge restaurant.”

Huge is not something that seems to work for the chef. The main dining room of his eponymous Philadelphia flagship maxes out at 30 diners, with only one table large enough to accommodate a party of six. (The restaurant occupies a historic 19th century townhouse in Washington Square West neighborhood that has been home to legendary Philadelphia eateries La Panetière, Le Bec-Fin and Chanterelles.)

The chef eventually expanded his Philadelphia operation to eight restaurants. But it was just that flagship that he retained when he sold the rest of his empire to Urban Outfitters in 2015, with plans to develop in-store pizza places for the huge clothing retailer. And as he prepared to resign his executive position with the company less than two years later, his plans were to once again focus his attention there.

“I was with Urban Outfitters for like a year and a half, and I was just about to resign,” the chef recalls. “And I was only gonna be at Vetri, which was fine.”

It was at that point that the Palms came calling.

Rustic elegance

“I was like ‘Yeah, I’ll go look. But I’ve already been out there. And I’ve looked. And I’ve not liked anything.’ ” The chef was impressed, however, with the intimate space and the amazing view. But Vetri says there was something more to the location, the former home of local fine-dining pioneer Andre Rochat’s Alize.

“You could see it was seasoned, and folks could have an elegant meal there.”

The chef and his team have spent the past year introducing Las Vegas to a style of elegance unlike anything you’ll find on the Strip or in our local neighborhoods. His brand of Italian cuisine is simultaneously elevated and rustic. Dishes are innovative, yet firmly rooted in tradition. And the short-but-mysterious menu descriptions might intimidate, if not for the extraordinary team of veteran servers the chef has assembled to guide you through your meal.

“I lived in Northern Italy,” the chef says of his inspiration. “And there was a rustic elegance to the rooms. But there was also a level of hospitality that was really unmatched. That’s the same way I think about Vetri. I look at it as, you’re coming in and you’re eating in my home. That’s how I want you to feel.”

Moving past the turmoil

It’s no secret that the past year has been tumultuous at the Palms, with high-profile shakeups of the resort’s management, partnerships and entertainers.

“There’s been, obviously, a little bit of turmoil within the whole thing, which you might have read about,” Vetri noted on the phone from Boulder, Colorado, less than 24 hours before the resort’s parent company announced the surprise closure of Kaos nightclub and dayclub in a quarterly earnings call.

“But I think we — the hotel, and me, and Michael (Symon), and a couple of the folks who are still in management — I think we’re all finally on the same page with how we want our image in the Vegas world to be. So we’re almost kind of reborn now, and kind of starting from scratch.”

And, he notes, the local community is the focus of that new push.

“We’re ready. We’re understanding the Vegas sort of vibe. We’ve been doing events, getting to know all the locals and all the local chefs, really sort of making our name in that locals’ world. I think the hotel is ready to really move forward with its new sort of grown-up image, and we’re ready to go. It’s been an interesting first year. And I think now is when we’re really ready to show ourselves to everybody.”

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

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