When it comes to reaching consensus on where our family is going to dine, Italian food can be controversial. We all like some parts of Italian cuisine — just not the same parts. Some of us love spaghetti with red sauce, while others of us can't handle the tang of so much tomato puree. Some of us avoid carbohydrates, while others of us could slurp a strand of linguine that stretched from here to Firenze. Some of us consider Italian food synonymous with pepperoni pizza, while others of us are looking for something more nuanced, fresher, less ... well, less red. And some of us need a casual, kid-friendly red-and-white-checked-tablecloth ambiance, while others would prefer something a little less ... well, red-and-white-checked.
With all those parameters in mind, we recently loaded up the family and headed to Vito's, located in the bungalow that formerly housed DaVinci's Pizza. I can only imagine it was a combination of habit and careless nostalgia for the family-friendly DaVinci's that made us overlook the fine print of the new restaurant's full name: Ristorante & Wine Bar at 1812. If we had it to do over again, we would not presume to inflict our family circus on an establishment whose title so clearly implies adult dining. And may I take this opportunity to apologize to the couple seated nearest us. I hope you successfully kindled some romance upon our departure. You might notice we took our desserts to go.
Despite our faux pas, Vito's handled our party of five with rare hospitality and grace, and we were glad to give our kids a glimpse of what we remember fondly as fancy-restaurant style, before pendant lighting, river rocks and exotic hardwoods became de rigueur design. An old house, wine-colored walls, black tablecloths, candles, Dean Martin and murals of canals set a stage for Italian dining that was old-school without being overly kitschy. Furthermore, while Randazzo — an alumnus of the tony Café 123 — doesn't bill his new venture a family restaurant, his menu managed to satisfy the diverse tastes of our whole family, and the bill did not exceed what we often spend in family-friendly settings.
For starters, calamari made an excellent first impression. Cloaked in light blond tempura-textured batter, the squid retained the tender texture of soft cheese — a far cry from the rubbery deep-fried rings ubiquitous on today's bar menus.
Mussels piccata arrived clicking in a rich salty bath of butter and wine, studded with chopped tomatoes, artichoke hearts and capers, and infused with confetti of dried herbs. When we had emptied the shells, we sopped up the remaining broth with chewy hunks of warm bread fresh from the oven.
Brick oven pizzas range in price from the $12 classic cheese to the $16 Rustica, topped with a carnivorous medley of Italian sausage, beef, prosciutto and pancetta. A 12-inch pie on a chewy crust made a hearty shared appetizer for the table, or, with salads, could serve as a light meal for two people.
For the noodle-slurping carb-ivores, there were ample choices of pasta shapes (spaghetti, fettuccine, penne and angel hair) to be matched with choice of sauce (vodka, Alfredo, pomodoro, funghi, puttanesca and Amatriciana). We enjoyed the spaghetti Amatriciana, noodles in a white wine-based sauce infused with garlic and shallots and tossed with artichoke hearts, prosciutto, bacon, tomatoes, green onions, mushrooms and sprigs of fresh thyme. It's worth noting that Randazzo takes the critical final step of cooking noodles in the sauce, rather than simply pouring sauce over noodles. This attention to details ensures that the sauce absorbs into the pasta, rather than sliding off and pooling at the bottom.
A simple presentation of linguine with clam sauce excelled on all points: al dente pasta in a briny bath of garlic-wine sauce with a generous collection of shells cradling plump sweet-and-salty clams.
At $23, the cold-water lobster tail provided a surprisingly affordable indulgence, with two generous curls of sweet tender meat, available broiled or in a choice of cream, spicy tomato or scampi sauce. For the scampi version, Randazzo flours and sears the lobster tails with a pan sauce of garlic, green onion, red pepper, lemon and marsala, and plates over risotto — more akin to nutty rice than creamy porridge — with an earthy scattering of sautéed mushrooms and rosemary, and a rustic side of carrots and asparagus. (The latter vegetable was cooked beyond al dente, to a mushier consistency than we would have liked.)
Overall, our family of opposing appetites left happy and satisfied by our various carnivorous, carbophobic and pepperoni-laden meals, made all the sweeter by dessert — which we took with us, remember, to give you lovebirds some time alone. Randazzo serves a faintly sweet crustless cheesecake made with a blend of ricotta and mascarpone, cooked long and low to develop a complex texture that is more crumbly than custardy. His tiramisu of ladyfingers and mascarpone is infused with Kahlua and topped with shavings of Belgian chocolate for a pretty presentation that lives up to the rich layering of flavors.
We would not have expected such a well-rounded and well-executed menu had we first experienced Vito's at lunch. That's not to say the all-you-can-eat buffet — a legacy of Vito's father's Lion's Head restaurant, Caesar's — isn't an excellent deal. On the contrary, eight bucks for bottomless pizza, pasta and salad is hard to beat in a full-service environment. But the straightforward offerings — such as penne and spinach tossed in cream sauce, spaghetti in red sauce, sausage, peppers and onions, and predictable pizzas —do little to showcase what Randazzo can do. Yes, lunch at Vito's is a steal, but don't let the bargain buffet steal your attention away from the greater value and quality of the evening meal.
Vito's Ristorante & Wine Bar at 1812 serves lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Monday through Saturday.