This Vetri cooks, too

Sal Vetri and his restaurateur son, Marc, make meatballs  Sals recipe, tweaked by Marc  at Amis. The father calls upon passed-down family cooking skills in helping out at Vetri.
Sal Vetri and his restaurateur son, Marc, make meatballs Sals recipe, tweaked by Marc at Amis. The father calls upon passed-down family cooking skills in helping out at Vetri.

Father Sal's meatballs, so popular with his son's staff, have landed on Amis' menu.

Posted: February 14, 2010

The other Vetri could be found at his usual post one afternoon last week, hand-trimming the brussels sprouts, his thick-templed Marty Scorsese glasses and the gold chain at the throat hinting at a previous life - another era.

Sal Vetri is 73 now, and he would have you believe that he savors the obscurity of this prep-kitchen counter at Vetri, the northern Italian gem that has won such acclaim for his son, Marc, the chef.

But it is really just a smaller stage here at 13th and Spruce, albeit a more anonymous one, for a man who until he sold them 10 years ago had sizable interests in town - in real estate ("I was an Italian decorator. White walls, dropped ceilings, indoor-outdoor carpeting. Paneling in the living room and den"), and retail jewelry (operating as Crown Jewel and Dazzles; 35 storefronts and mall kiosks at the peak).

All three of his children with Barbara Rotenberg, his wife of 50 years - Adam, the Hollywood TV producer behind The Biggest Loser; Risa Vetri Ferman, the Montgomery County D.A.; and Marc (as early as age 13) - pitched in part-time: "We started ear-piercing in 1963, usually it was all refugees at first, then came the hippies . . .").

This kitchen is his alternative showcase, a floured pasta board at his left elbow, the place where he has uncorked his other self - not just prep chef for his son, but cook in his own right.

How many ways can he cook pasta? "I make it 90 different ways!" And sometimes he'll fix peas with sauteed mushrooms and onions the way his mother, Jenny, did with roast pork when he was growing up in the Sicilian enclave at Seventh and League; his mother in the day - this is revealed as simple fact - was "the best cook in South Philly." And spareribs with honey. And sometimes chicken cacciatore. And his legendary (in Vetri's small circle of cooks and servers) spaghetti and tender meatballs.

So when Sal's brussels sprouts are done, and his minding of the onions that simmer all day for the "golden onion crepe," and his blanching and squeezing and draining of the spinach for Vetri's gorgeous spinach gnocchi, he shifts personas: "Kitchen Bitch," as he calls himself, morphs into down-home chef for the 4:30 staff meal.

He has been about this routine for 10 years now, since Vetri opened, a younger Sal helping his son haul out stoves and mix concrete to back up the tilework. For three days a week, he pulls a shift, about 20 hours total, always gratis, always at Vetri.

He tried a stint at Osteria, Marc's second place on North Broad. But it was too hectic; not as close-knit. And he has ventured (but only on occasion) to Amis, the lively Roman trattoria that is the latest Vetri venture, open now at 13th and Waverly.

And that is where - at Amis - his anonymity has been blown to a degree, or at least compromised.

In a nod to their popularity at staff meals, Marc has put his father's meatballs on the daily menu. You'll see them sandwiched between the carpaccio of beef filet, and the almond-dusted sweetbreads - Sal's Old School Meatballs with tomato potato (which is tomato-infused mashed potato), $8.

They are old-school indeed - ground beef and veal, eggs and garlic and onion chopped until "it's almost liquid," parmesan cheese and Progresso bread crumbs, the innards of Italian bread mixed with milk, baked until they're three-quarters done (the better to give up their meaty juices and soak up the marinara in the pot).

They hark back to his grandmother Angelina Savarese, from Enna, in central Sicily, and his mother, Jenny, who every Sunday made family dinner of antipasti and "homemades" (her own pasta) and "gravy meat," which was these very meatballs and sausage and bresole, to the days when he froze his extremities off as a teenager working in the slaughterhouse at Esposito's on Ninth Street.

No, he doesn't actually roll them for Amis; the daily batch is already more than 120 a day. And yes, chef Marc has tweaked them, standardized the proportions, added pecorino, upped the milk to soften them even more.

But they are Sal's meatballs at heart, visitors from a previous life, from an era when Sunday dinner was always made - and only made - by the best cook in South Philly.


Amis trattoria

412 S. 13th St.

215-732-2647

www.amisphilly.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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