Home for the Holidays

Philadelphia-based Marc Vetri celebrates his Italian-style holidays with hearty winter foods that are so simple to prepare, you’ll spend time with your guests, not in your kitchen.


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Three years ago, Marc Vetri had an epiphany.

“We had two kids and my wife was pregnant with our third, and we had to go to two different Thanksgivings to make everyone happy,” he says. “And on the way home, I said, ‘That’s the last time we are leaving the house for the holidays.’ ”

Vetri has remained true to that decree. Today, when this festive time of year rolls around, the Philadelphia chef can be found in his home kitchen, or sampling his own seasonal creations surrounded by family and friends.

“Whoever wants to come, can come,” he says with conviction. “I’ll cook, but we are not leaving the house.”

He celebrates the holidays on his own terms, even if it means there are 30 people in the house.

To be sure, Vetri isn’t afraid to cook for a crowd. His flagship restaurant, Vetri, is one of the country’s finest Italian establishments, and he owns three other Italian spots that offer a range of food from pizza and salumi to grilled fish and meats.

It was with Italian food that Vetri found his calling. A job cooking for Wolfgang Puck at the now-defunct Granita in Malibu, California, led to a series of stages in the region of Bergamo, Italy, arranged by Puck’s colleague, Piero Selvaggio (of Valentino Restaurant Group fame).

“I never went to culinary school,” says Vetri. “I learned why I loved to cook when I was in Italy. That’s where I really came to understand flavors and the foundation of cooking. I realized, ‘Wow, it’s not really work.’ ”

Over a two-year period, he cooked at five restaurants, including the celebrated Taverna del Colleoni Dell’Angelo in Bergamo, which blends local ingredients and regional specialties with modern methods.

Vetri’s culinary credentials are undisputed. In 1998, he opened Vetri; by 2005, he was named “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” by the James Beard Foundation.

It’s not hyperbole to say that some critics consider Vetri to be the best Italian restaurant in the country. He has since opened the traditionally influenced Osteria (2007), Amis (2010) and in 2012, he introduced gastropub Alla Spina. Each has its own distinct Italianate personality.

Regardless of which restaurant you choose to visit, you will find a welcoming atmosphere where food and friends go hand in hand. Vetri has his Italian-American upbringing to thank for that. His father’s family hails from Sicily and, as a child, Vetri recalls holiday meals at his grandma’s house.

“We had this big, long table that ran from the kitchen through the living room, and another one for the kids,” he says. “It was always macaroni, meatballs, lasagna.”

In fact, he doesn’t even recall turkey or yams. It was all about traditional Italian cooking. Now, he likes to mix it up at home during the holidays. For instance, he might make turkey, but instead of a whole bird, he will use turkey parts and spit roast them individually to showcase their unique flavors and textures.

And, while seasonal celebrations are certainly about food, they tend to be far more basic in Vetri’s eyes. The holidays are simply about feeling welcome.

When he was working in Italy, he recalls being invited to six different families’ homes for Christmas.

“They didn’t make me feel like a visitor,” he remembers fondly. And this is how Vetri approaches the holidays now.

“I’m not looking at it in any way other than ‘Let’s just have a whole bunch of folks over to the house,’ ” he says. “We’re all about the more, the merrier, eating and just enjoying life.”

And how does he accommodate so many visitors? “We live in a row home with long rooms,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot of area for a dining room table, so we just lay everything out. It’s a buffet. We take what we want.”

Vetri’s menu is unabashedly Italian, drawing on his experiences from all across Italy. Tuna-ricotta fritters are one of his favorites, balancing a lovely combination of personal memory and flavor explosion.

“The first time I ever had these fritters was in Cene, Italy, just outside Bergamo,” he says. “I was with one [of] my chefs, Jeff Michaud, and we were visiting his mother-in-law, Pina Cagnoni. When I opened my mouth to say ‘hi,’ Pina immediately shoved one of these in there instead. I was blown away by the flavor and texture.”

Vetri suggests passing the fritters as people mingle, or plating them up family style. With a frothy, berry-rich Lambrusco, very much a wine of the moment, the pairing is a festive start to the evening.
Zucchini lasagna is another crowd-pleaser that can be made for buffet presentation or in compact, individual servings. The squash is a lighter alternative to the more familiar meat filling. Last Thanksgiving, Vetri substituted an autumnal squash for a seasonal take on the ingredients.

The shredded curd-style stracciatella cheese—strands of fresh mozzarella soaked in cream—adds a distinctly tangy flavor. If you can’t find stracciatella, use the best quality fresh mozzarella you can buy.

And, instead of the usual turkey or ham, Vetri champions his tender, deeply flavored veal dish topped with shallot marmalade as a surprisingly satisfying alternative.

“In 1994, when I was working in Tuscany at La Chiusa, we used to braise goat in milk all the time,” he says. “It’s a very traditional Tuscan technique, and I love using it with veal—which is obviously easier to find at the market.”

As a side, he recommends charred Brussels sprouts with pancetta. These aren’t, in his words, the “boiled-to-death” mini cabbages that most of us hated as kids.

The concept came about by accident after he had left Brussels sprouts on the stove too long. The carbonized edges of the sprouts meld with the fatty pancetta for a side dish that “your guests will be cleaning off their plates.”

Lightening things up, but still offering a decadent conclusion, is Vetri’s amaretti semifreddo with warm chocolate sauce. Vetri is a self-confessed chocolate addict, and the addition of the amaretti cookies, essentially Italian macaroons made with ground almonds and egg whites, really symbolizes the holidays for him.

While this menu might sound sinful, Vetri isn’t worried.

“Yes, it’s rich, but the recipes have a nice balance in them,” he says. “There’s a little bit of acid. Once you have them with the wines, it balances out. Besides, these aren’t recipes you are going to eat in August. It’s the holidays, the weather, the wine, the ambience.”

In other words, they are celebration foods meant to be shared with friends.

More importantly, these are prep- and cooking-time-friendly recipes.

“The big thing about the menu is that it doesn’t require a ton of active kitchen time,” he says. “You don’t want to spend hours manning the stove or oven and not spending time with your loved ones, because that would be missing the point of the holiday season.”

Whether he is cooking the traditional southern Italian Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve or putting out a buffet spread for dozens of hungry visitors, Vetri’s seasonal cheer is summed up easily in this welcome: “Come over to my house, it’s always open. Nobody should be alone at the holidays.”

That’s an invitation hard not to accept.

Lasagna with Zucchini and Stracciatella

Recipe adapted from Rustic Italian Food by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

¼ cup packed fresh garlic chives
¼ cup packed fresh chives
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
8 ounces basic egg pasta dough, rolled into sheets
1 yellow squash, julienned
1 green squash, julienned
1 clove garlic, minced
3–4 sprig thyme
¾ cup ricotta impastata or drained whole-milk ricotta
6 ounces stracciatella or burrata
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
8 teaspoons unsalted butter, cut into teaspoon-size slices, plus more to butter baking dish
⅔ cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish

Preheat an oven to 425˚F.

Purée the garlic chives, chives and ½ cup of olive oil in a small food processor or blender until smooth.

Lay a pasta sheet on a lightly floured work surface and cut into lengths that will fit a 6-cup baking dish. Spritz the pasta lightly with water as you work to keep it from drying out. Refrigerate any remaining pasta for another use.

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, quickly returning the water to a boil, and blanch for 15–20 seconds.

Transfer the pasta to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Lay the pasta flat on kitchen towels and pat dry.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium-sized sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the squashes, garlic and thyme, and cook until soft but not mushy, about 3–4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Mix the ricotta and stracciatella in a small bowl, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Butter a 6-cup baking dish and line the bottom with pasta, leaving some hanging over the edges. Top with half of the cheese mixture, squash and Parmesan, spreading each almost to the edge of the pasta. Repeat with one layer each of pasta and filling. Top with another pasta sheet and the butter.

Bake in the preheated oven until lightly browned on the edges, about 10–12 minutes. If your oven has convection, turn it on to help crisp the edges of the overhanging pasta.

To serve, divide among warm plates and drizzle each serving with some of the chive oil. Garnish with Parmesan. Serves 6.

Prep Ahead: If using pasta squares, they can be made up to 2 days ahead, lightly floured, stacked in an airtight container and refrigerated. Keep the chive oil at room temperature for up to 8 hours, or refrigerate it for up to 2 days, returning it to room temperature before using.

Wine Pairing: Tramin’s Sauvignon from the Alto Adige region is one of the most exceptional white wines in its price range. As described by Steve Wildy, beverage director of Vetri’s restaurants, “this laser-sharp Sauvignon Blanc from the pre-Alps is all grapefruit up front and all green grass and herbs on the finish. Those aromas coax out the green snap of the zucchini in the dish.”

Veal Breast “al Latte” with Fried Sage

Recipe adapted from Rustic Italian Food by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

1½ pounds pork fatback, cubed
2 cloves garlic
3 sprigs rosemary, plus 2 sprigs for braising
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 (5-pound) boneless veal breast
3–4 tablespoons grapeseed oil, divided
1 bay leaf
3 lemons, 1 juiced and 2 sliced
1 gallon whole milk
20 fresh sage leaves, plus more for garnish

Preheat an oven to 350˚F.

Put the fatback in a single layer on a baking sheet that will fit in your freezer. Freeze until firm but not solid, about 30–40 minutes.

Purée the fat, garlic and leaves of 3 rosemary sprigs in a food processor in small batches until the mixture takes on the texture of softened butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Lay the veal breast, rough side up, on a work surface. Trim the excess fat to make the meat relatively flat and even, then season with salt and pepper.

Spread ¾ of the fat mixture evenly over the surface of the veal. Starting at a long side, roll the veal into a compact roll. Tie the roll with butcher’s string at even intervals spaced 1–2 inches apart. Rub the outside of the roll with the remaining fat mixture.

Heat 1 tablespoon of grapeseed oil in an oval Dutch oven or heavy, ovenproof casserole large enough to hold the veal roll (roughly 16–18 inches at the widest spot) over medium heat. Add the veal and cook until it is dark brown on all sides, about 10 minutes, turning occasionally.

Tie the bay leaf and 2 rosemary sprigs together with kitchen twine, then toss the herbs in the pan. Add the lemon juice and slices to the pan. Pour in enough milk to come about 2⁄3 of the way up the side of the veal. Reduce the heat to medium-low and bring to a simmer. Cover the pan and place in the preheated oven until the veal is fork-tender, about 2 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the veal to a cutting board. Remove the lemon slices and herb sachet from the cooking liquid, which will be curdled. Let the liquid cool for a few minutes, then skim some of the fat from the surface.

Boil the liquid over medium-high heat until it reduces in volume by about one-third, about 15– 20 minutes. Purée the liquid until the mixture is smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, cut the veal roll crosswise into ¾-inch slices. Heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and sear the slices in batches until crisp, about 4 minutes, adding oil as necessary. Sauté the sage leaves until crisp. Arrange the meat and the sautéed sage leaves on a warm serving plate or on individual plates.

For the sauce, discard any remaining oil in the pan and pour in the puréed braising liquid. Simmer gently over medium-low heat until warm. Drizzle the sauce over the veal and garnish with sage leaves. Serves 6–8.

Prep Ahead: It’s best to start the veal several hours before you plan to serve it, preferably the day before. You can braise the veal roll, remove the roll from the braising liquid, cover and refrigerate it for 1 day before slicing. Allow the slices to sit at room temperature for about 1 hour before searing them.

Wine Pairing: Carmignano is a wine region in Tuscany with a history dating back to Roman times, its quality recognized in the Middle Ages by none other than Cosimo III de Medici. In the 18th century, winemakers started tinkering with their own pre-Super Tuscan blends of Sangiovese and Cabernet. Tenuta di Capezzana’s Barco Reale di Carmignano includes the latter grapes plus Canaiolo, once the dominant grape in Chianti. The deep red blend is velvety and balanced with just a hint of oak.

Amaretti Semifreddo with Warm Chocolate Sauce

Recipe adapted from Rustic Italian Food by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

4 eggs, separated, plus 4 egg yolks
½ cup sugar, plus 4½ teaspoons, divided
2¾ cups heavy cream, divided
¾ cup crushed amaretti cookies
7½ ounces bittersweet chocolate, preferably 58% cocoa, chopped
4 tablespoons shortening or unsalted butter, softened
4 teaspoons light corn syrup
¼ cup chopped almonds, for garnish

Combine the 8 egg yolks and ½ cup sugar in a large bowl, and whisk until pale and fluffy, about 2–3 minutes.

In a stand mixer, whisk the egg whites on medium speed until firm peaks form, about 2–3 minutes.

In the cleaned mixer, whip 2 cups of heavy cream and the amaretti cookies on medium-low until the mixture forms soft peaks, about 1 minute. Gently fold the whipped cream and egg white mixtures into the yolk mixture using a rubber spatula. Scrape into quart containers, cover and freeze until firm, at least 6 hours.

Meanwhile, pour ¾ cup of heavy cream into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Put the chocolate and butter in a medium-sized bowl and add the hot cream. Let it sit for 2 minutes, then whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is blended.

In a clean saucepan, combine the corn syrup, 4½ teaspoons of sugar and 4 teaspoons of water. Set the pan over medium heat until the sugar melts, then add the corn syrup to the chocolate mixture, whisking until smooth. Add another teaspoon of water if necessary to thin the sauce.

To serve, spoon 2–3 scoops of the semifreddo mixture into each dessert bowl, then drizzle with the warm chocolate sauce and sprinkle with the chopped almonds. Serves 6–8.

Prep Ahead: You can crush the amaretti cookies in a food processor and store in an airtight container for up to 1 month. The chocolate sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week before using. Bring it to temperature by heating it in a metal bowl or in the top of a double boiler set over gently simmering water, whisking constantly once it starts to warm up. Freeze the semifreddo in an airtight container for up to 2 months.

Wine Pairing: Librandi’s Le Passule uses raisined Montonico grapes, creating what Wildy sees as “a light body that is uncommon in sweet wines. Dried fruit with almond and citrus peel aromas blend well with the chocolate and enhance the semifreddo itself.”

Tuna-Ricotta Fritters

Recipe adapted from Rustic Italian Food by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

1 (9-ounce) tuna steak
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
9 ounces robiola cheese
9 ounces ricotta impastata or drained whole-milk ricotta cheese
4 eggs, lightly beaten, divided
2½ cups dried bread crumbs, divided
Black pepper, to taste
1 cup 00 Italian-style flour (or all-purpose flour)
Grapeseed or olive oil, for deep-frying

Rub the tuna with salt until evenly coated, then cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Rinse the tuna and put it in a large sauté pan with water to cover. Bring to a low simmer over medium-high heat. Gently poach the fish until it is just firm and an instant-read thermometer registers 120˚F when inserted into the fish. Remove from heat and let cool in the poaching liquid.

Remove the fish from the liquid, and briefly chop it using a food processor until it is just slightly chunky. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl, and stir in the robiola, ricotta, 1 beaten egg and ½ cup of bread crumbs. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Put the flour in a shallow bowl, 3 beaten eggs in a second bowl and 2 cups of bread crumbs in a third bowl. Form the tuna mixture into balls that are 1½ inches in diameter (about half the size of a golf ball) and roll in the flour, then in the eggs and finally in the bread crumbs. Transfer the balls to a wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet as you work.

To deep fry, add 2 inches of oil to a Dutch oven or heavy, ovenproof casserole dish, and heat the oil until it registers 350˚F on a deep-fry thermometer. Working in batches, fry the balls until golden brown, about 1–2 minutes. Cool on a rack set over a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Yields approximately 32 small fritters.

Prep Ahead: If you can’t find ricotta impastata, drain whole-milk ricotta instead. Line a sieve with cheesecloth or paper towels and place over a bowl. Put the ricotta in the sieve, cover and let drain in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. You can mix, cover and refrigerate the tuna mixture up to 3 days ahead. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 15–20 minutes to take off the chill, then roll it into balls and bread them just before frying.

Wine Pairing: Vetri is a Lambrusco fan, and Steve Wildy, beverage director of Vetri’s restaurants, recommends Medici Ermete’s Lambrusco di Salamino di Santa Croce Concerto. Hailing from the Emilia-Romagna region where this gently sparkling red is often served alongside wonderfully fatty starters, this is a perfect wine to ring in the evening. According to Wildy, it is “frothy, cold, inky-purple in color and loaded with tart berry fruit,” providing a mouth-tingling complement to the deep-fried fritters.

Basic Egg Pasta Dough

¼ cup 00 Italian-style flour (or all-purpose flour), plus more for dusting
½ cup durum flour, plus 1 tablespoon
9 egg yolks
3–4 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Put both flours in the bowl of a stand-up mixer. Using a paddle attachment, run the mixer on medium speed, and add the egg yolks, water and oil. Mix just until the ingredients come together into dough, 2–3 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead for about 5 minutes, or until silky and smooth, kneading in more all-purpose flour if the dough is too sticky. The dough is ready if it gently pulls back into place when stretched.

Shape the dough into a 6-inch log, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 3 days.

Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces. When the dough has begun to return to room temperature but remains slightly chilly to the touch, position it on a pasta roller on the widest setting. Put one piece of dough through the rollers, lightly dusting the dough with flour if necessary to prevent sticking. Adjust the rollers to the next narrowest setting and again pass the dough through the rollers. Pass the dough once through each progressively narrower setting, concluding with the narrowest setting, or as directed in the recipe you’re making.

Between rollings, continue to dust the dough lightly with the flour, if needed, always brushing off the excess. You should end up with a sheet 4–5 feet long and thin enough to be translucent.

Lay the pasta sheet on a lightly floured work surface and sprinkle lightly with flour. Use a knife or the cutter attachment on the pasta machine to create the desired pasta shape. Yields 1 pound of pasta.

Shallot Marmalade

Recipe adapted from Rustic Italian Food by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

1 pound shallots, peeled and halved
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup olive oil
2 sprigs rosemary
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Pinch of sugar (optional)

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a medium saucepan set over low heat, then add the shallots and rosemary, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook very slowly until the shallots caramelize, about 1 hour. Toss the shallots occasionally to separate the layers and break them up.

Remove the rosemary sprigs and season the shallots lightly with sherry vinegar and a pinch of sugar, if necessary. Blend briefly with an immersion or upright blender until chunky. Taste and add the vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar as needed. Makes approximately 1 cup.

Prep Ahead: You can keep the marmalade in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. The mixture will solidify, so return it to room temperature or warm it up briefly before serving.

Charred Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta

Recipe adapted from Il Viaggio Di Vetri: A Culinary Journey by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, 2008)

18–20 small Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
1 clove garlic, cut in half
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
1 ounce pancetta, diced
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Rub the flat side of each Brussels sprout half with the garlic clove.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, add the sprouts and shake the pan to coat with the oil. Turn the sprouts cut-side down and scatter the pancetta in the pan. Cook undisturbed for 6–8 minutes, or until the sprouts are deeply browned (almost black) on the cut sides. Add the vinegar and butter, tossing to coat the sprouts. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serves 4.

Variation: You can use balsamic vinegar in place of the sherry vinegar. If you like your sprouts softer, cover the pan immediately after adding the vinegar and butter, cooking until fork tender. Then toss with the butter, salt and pepper.

Wine Pairing: Produttori del Barbaresco’s Langhe Nebbiolo is “the wine Barbaresco producers drink at their dinner table,” says Wildy. “This one shows bright, perfumed aromas of cherry and roses, as well as subtle earthy notes of smoke, tar and tobacco to pick up on the char of the Brussels, while the no-joke tannins cut the fatty pancetta.”

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