This weekend, the Vetri Family opens a branch of Amis in Westport, Connecticut.
Marc Vetri and his crew have opened more than a dozen venues over the years, but this launch is particularly important. It marks the first expansion for a Vetri brand that’s not a pizzeria. As such, it will be a bellwether of sorts, serving as a test case for whether the URBN-owned restaurant group can export its stand-alone dining concepts to markets outside Philadelphia.
Vetri himself has been involved in development of the new Amis, of course, as has Brad Spence, the company culinary director who partnered with Vetri to open the original seven years ago on 13th Street in Philly.
But much of the responsibility for making sure the venture works will fall to Drew DiTomo, a 27-year-old kid from West Philly who’s been with the company less than three years. He’s the one tasked with running the Amis kitchens — first these two, and then, if things work as planned, additional outposts in other towns or cities.
“Drew is basically a younger twin version of Brad Spence,” Vetri said, describing why DiTomo’s personality — along with his “amazing palate” and unfussy approach to cooking — makes him perfect for the job. “That conviviality and jovial attitude is a big part of what makes Amis so welcoming and such a great neighborhood place.”
DiTomo shares another personality trait with Spence: Both men got sucked into the industry’s party-all-the-time culture — to the point where addictions nearly took over their lives.
“Mine was booze,” Spence said, recalling the day he was working for Mario Batali and had to be rushed to the hospital and stayed for two weeks because his liver stopped working from too much drinking. “His was drugs.”
DiTomo fell in love with restaurants the first day he started working at one, when he sliced open his hand shucking clams.
He was 14 years old, and his older brother had gotten him a gig washing dishes at a 25-seat Havertown joint called Anthony’s Cafe. The job also included doing food prep, and when he was handed a bag of raw clams and told to open them, he dove in. Popped open five shells before his shucking knife slipped and went right through his palm. He made a fist and staggered outside, where he found the head cook. But instead of pity, he got tough love.
“Get your fucking shirt changed,” his boss hollered. “Put a different apron on, people don’t want to see all that blood.”
DiTomo did as he was told, then taped up his wound with bandages, put a plastic glove over it, and went back to work. It hurt, but he was glowing inside. He had a purpose. The restaurant needed him.
“I never felt that in my life, you know, where you made sense? I thought I was the coolest person on Earth washing people’s dishes,” he recalled. Within a few months, he’d moved on from prep to actual cooking. That boss showed him everything from how to bread veal — gotta press the crumbs into each individual cutlet, not the whole stack, like DiTomo first thought — to the trick to tossing a saute pan. He also learned how to feel cool smoking cigarettes on the fire escape out back and how to wind down after work with more than a few shift drinks. He eventually moved onto a real line cook job at the Saint Davids Golf Club, where he honed his skill in helping put out hundreds of plates in a night.
Throughout his teen years, DiTomo would leave class early to get to work. Restaurants were his focus. He was good at cooking, and he wanted to make it his life. When he graduated from high school, he applied to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
He was rejected.
It wasn’t really a surprise to Drew that he didn’t get in. The CIA’s renowned for its high standards, and he’d ended high school with a 1.68 GPA — it was only even that high thanks to the fact that in junior year he’d started a Vo Tech course of study.
“I wasn’t good at school,” he said. “I don’t know if I had a learning disability or what you’d call it, but my brain just works differently, you know?”
The way DiTomo’s mind worked would eventually end up scoring him a six-month trip to Italy; at age 18, he was content to just bop around and cook. He worked at several cafes and pizzerias on the Main Line and Upper Darby. One day, cooking for a neighborhood event, he fell into conversation with Chris Scarduzio.
Scarduzio was just about to open Table 31 in the Comcast Center with George Perrier. The pair hit it off — they were both Overbrook natives, it turned out — and the chef-restaurateur invited DiTomo to come work the line at the ritzy steakhouse. It wasn’t a paying gig at first, just a “stage,” but after putting in two months of foot-swelling, wrist-burning, finger-nicking labor in a kitchen that sent out 400 orders a night, his boss finally accepted him into the club.
One morning, Scarduzio barked at the kid: “Hey, am I paying you?” No, but it’s fine, he replied, it’s an honor to be here. “You should work here,” the chef said, and put DiTomo on the payroll.
Instead of paying for school, he was getting paid — and getting schooled.
Alex Ferrara was the Table 31 sous chef who took the 19-year-old under his wing, both on the job and off.
“He was probably the most important guy in my career,” DiTomo said, with a mix of awe and regret. “He was a great cook, but a fucking scary dude. It was… It got real, real fast.”
Alex and Drew fell into a rhythm. They’d come into work in the morning to prep, hammer out dinners on the line, then go out and party. They closed Oscar’s Tavern every night and then headed out for more. Booze on top of cocaine on top of whatever else they could find. The pair took up long distance bicycling, which came with its own kind of adrenalin high.
“I wasn’t sleeping, he wasn’t sleeping,” DiTomo said. “It was nuts, I don’t know how I was doing it.”
At 21, he was still living at his parents’ house, though the extent of his stay there amounted to sneaking in around 6 a.m. each morning and laying on top of his bedcovers for an hour before jumping up to start the cycle again. They had no idea about his escapades on the town — “they still don’t know, they’ll never know” — and so didn’t make any moves to get him help.
“You get your head blown off with everything at once,” he remembered. “You’re like, ‘Oh my god, look at this, I’m out partying every night, I’m cooking at a cool restaurant!’”
But instead of pushing it to the point where he ended up in the hospital, like Brad Spence had done, DiTomo somehow was able to set himself straight.
“I just got to change,” he told himself one day. “I can’t keep living this way.”
Main Line rebound
A change of environment was what he craved, so DiTomo left Table 31 and got himself his first sous-chef job, helping launch a Narberth BYOB called Aperto. He and John Wolferth, the owner, threw their hearts and souls into serving city-level pasta to the Main Line.
“I got my feet back under me with John,” DiTomo said. “I got my confidence back.”
He saved up some cash and made a plan to go into real estate, flipping houses with his brother. Before he invested, though, he decided to make one more attempt at culinary school. He applied to the CIA again — and got in right away.
“The recruiter calls me back the next day,” DiTomo remembered. “He was like, ‘Yo buddy, you’re in.’”
An associates degree would put him back $70,000, but he looked at the opportunity as a 15-month vacation. It was at the CIA that he really started getting into Italian cuisine — “I felt so good tossing pasta, like, perfect” — and he became close with an Italian prof. The chef gave him a hookup in Italy, a chance to cook with Sandra Lotti at her famed Tuscan resort-slash-cooking school for tourists, Toscana Saporita. After graduation, he headed overseas.
In Tuscany, DiTomo learned “a lot about pizza, bread and working the Italian way.” He learned how to fold dozens of intricate pasta shapes, and how to determine the proper ratio of water-to-flour dough needed just by touch.
When he returned to the states, he was full of knowledge. He and his girlfriend, who was working as a pastry chef, were going to try to make it work in NYC, but the expenses seemed like way too much on top of the school loans he had to pay back. Then his dream job in Philly popped up.
He was floating around on Craigslist when he spotted a position at Amis.
On the line
“Shit, Vetri’s the only guy in Philly I want to work for,” he thought to himself, “and this is the one Vetri spot I want to work at.” He applied and got a job as a line cook.
The folks at Amis soon realized DiTomo had a special touch. He moved up through the ranks and within six months became a junior sous chef. Then the main sous chef left, and DiTomo ended up in the top spot, right under Brad Spence.
At first, he didn’t like Spence at all. “That guy’s fucking nuts, he’s crazy, I don’t like him,” he would mumble under his breath. But then he realized he was almost looking in the mirror.
“I started realizing I operate much like this guy,” DiTomo said. “We started just hitting on the same levels, talking about Italian American food and just geeking out about veal parm.”
And as they competed to see who could make the best simple spaghetti and garlic or fried calamari, and talked about past demons and what it was like to be clean, he and Spence began working out what Amis was really all about.
“This concept isn’t just a Roman Italian concept anymore,” DiTomo explained. “That’s what I’m most excited about. I think it speaks mostly for Philly — the inspiration is South Philly Italian. The kind of food we have fun cooking.”
The big test
The URBN acquisition didn’t really change much for DiTomo day to day, but it did offer a huge opportunity: The chance to help take that concept to other communities. Communities that are very different than Philly.
Westport is a town where the population of 26,000 has a median income of $153,000. (Philly’s hovers just above $40,000). But the plan is for the Amis there to be just as loud, just as buzzy, just as neighborhood trattoria-like as the original.
Well, “maybe not quite as loud,” DiTomo allowed, laughing. “Each Amis will have its own personality.”
Yes, if things go well in Connecticut, there will be more of them.
“This is the big test. Spence is kind of like the top dog,” DiTomo said, “but really this will be my responsibility. I’m excited.”