“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.
“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.”
If you go
■ What: Guest Chef dinner series: Marc Vetri and Dan Krohmer
■ Where: Vetri Cucina at the Palms
■ When: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Nov. 19
■ Price: $130, with optional $100 wine pairing. Tax and gratuity included.
■ Tickets: secretburger.com
Stuzzichini: Chilled frutti de mare
First course: Chicken liver crostini with pickled chanterelles and mostarda
Second course: Langoustine soup with shaved lamb tongue
Third course: Corzetti with snails and cauliflower crema
Fourth course: Mixed Grill — baby goat, duck and sausage with cardoon and sweetbread gratin, roasted baby fall vegetables with aged balsamic
Dessert: Opera cake
How it happened
Nobody is quite sure who first brought Marc Vetri to the attention of Station Casinos. Some say it was Fred Morin of Montreal’s Joe Beef. In other versions of the story, it was Michael Symon. What we know for sure is that it was Symon who put some Station Casinos execs in a car in Atlantic City, and sent them to have dinner at Vetri’s Philadephia fine-dining flagship.
“So Michael called me up,” Vetri says. “It was a Sunday night. And I went in, and they had a meal. And they were blown away. And they were like, ‘You know, we gotta get Frank and Lorenzo (Fertitta) in here.”
When those executives returned to tell their bosses about the restaurant, they were surprised to learn the brothers already had a reservation for Vetri, to celebrate the graduation of Lorenzo’s son from nearby Villanova University.
“Frank and Lorenzo came in, and they were so happy,” the chef recalls of the meal. “I went out, and spoke with them. And they asked me to make them something. And they were just so happy. And they were like ‘We’re gonna make this happen!’ And then I didn’t hear from them for like three months.”
The chef laughs about it now, saying he had written off the entire experience by the time he got a call in August. But he flew out to see the Palms, which was under renovation when he arrived.
“It was still pretty haggard looking. And I walked into the lobby, and I was like, ‘Ugh, really?’ “
That changed, however, when he took the elevator to the top floor of the Ivory Tower.
“I remember getting off the elevator and walking into that room. And I was like ‘Wow, this is awesome!’ It reminded me of walking into Chanterelles, which is (now) Vetri.”
The rest, as they say, is history.