From Vivo, With Love 

A new hangout at the Old Arcade abounds in sights, sounds, and delectable flavors.

Executive chef Todd Stein offers calamari and much - more at Vivo in the Old Arcade. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Executive chef Todd Stein offers calamari and much more at Vivo in the Old Arcade.

Lithe, lean, and suave, James Bond fills out an expensive tux the way Marilyn Monroe inhabited a swimsuit. But beyond sheer good looks, much of 1007's animal magnetism comes from the fact that, beneath those tailored threads, we know he's still a hairy-chested brawler, a tough guy who can whup some ass, toss back a cold martini, and then rock our world until the cows come home. Ooooh, James!

All this pleasant ruminating was prompted, oddly enough, by several recent trips to Vivo, Cleveland's new Italian restaurant at the Euclid Avenue entrance to the Old Arcade. A joint project of Chicago restaurateur Dan Krasny, who launched the original Vivo in Chicago's Randolph Street Market District more than a decade ago, and executive chef Todd Stein, formerly of Piccolo Mondo and Sans Souci, the handsome hangout is crisply garbed in black curtains and bright white linens. But don't let that formal attire mislead you. By the time the energetic staff has greeted you, seated you, and whisked away your wrap, you understand that Vivo is a place of energy and life.

High ceilings, wooden floors, exposed brick, and stainless steel embrace two separate dining rooms, a granite-topped bar, and the long, open kitchen, where sous chef Keoko Turner and his staff are a blur of culinary activity. On the sound system is electronica and jazz. And on the tabletops, tightly focused spotlights illuminate the food while throwing theatrical shadows across diners' faces.

As in the Chicago original, closely packed tables make for lots of background buzz, but still permit easy conversation. And while Vivo-Cleveland can't lay claim to a table tucked into a converted elevator shaft (one of Vivo-Chicago's signature touches), it still has its prime real estate: window-side tables overlooking both a surprisingly lively Euclid Avenue and -- in a romantic, candlelit, semiprivate room, swathed in black curtains -- a view of the Arcade entrance. (These popular tables must be requested in advance.)

The provocative stir continues in the kitchen, where smart, insightful preparations of such commonplace fare as bruschetta and calamari, spaghetti alla puttanesca and veal chops raise the bar for every other Mediterranean restaurant in the city. In fact, this is food so intelligently designed and precisely engineered, it should be underwritten by NASA.

While less-obsessive chefs have been known to fall back on a handful of in-your-face ingredients (the ubiquitous sun-dried tomatoes and truffle oil come readily to mind) as an easy way to boost their dishes' taste appeal, Stein and company take an entirely more subtle approach, one that finds them assembling towering edifices of intensity from multiple layers of sheer, translucent flavor. Each item on a plate -- an oven-roasted tomato, perhaps, a curl of Parmigiano, or a splash of 12-year-old balsamic -- is, by itself, humbly unpretentious. But each ingredient has been put there for a reason, and when they commingle on the taste buds like voices in a chorus, the simple flavors undergo a synergistic transformation into something much greater than the sum of their parts.

When this technique is perfectly executed -- as in an entrée of lush seared cod, settled on an earthy mound of braised cannelloni and escarole, and splashed with a bit of saffron-scented tomato broth; or in a starter of smoky-sweet calamari, sautéed with spinach, red onion, and tomato, and served with a breathtaking dash of lemon citronette -- the results are dishes of almost transcendent unity, flavor, and force. And even when the kitchen misses the bull's-eye, as in an anchovy-piqued Caesar-salad dressing that nonetheless yearned for a few more drops of fresh lemon juice, the results are still entirely above average.

While a gentle touch is the linchpin of this style, perfect ingredients are also a requisite. Vibrantly sweet baby beet greens in the mista salad, for example, were remarkable for their delicacy, and an almost invisible balsamic vinaigrette magnified, rather than masked, their pristine essence. Smoky wood-grilled mussels, piled high in a sturdy white bowl, were so plump, fresh, and gently cooked that they needed no heavy-handed garlic sauce to disguise them. Rather, a small puddle of olive oil and shellfish jus, tweaked with spicy, slow-cooked tomato, provided just the right overtones of richness and sass. A thick Niman Ranch pork porterhouse, a Saturday night special, had profound richness, yet was so tender it nearly evaporated on our tongues. And cloud-like pockets of freshly made pasta, stuffed with creamy R-Haven goat cheese and herbs (the ravioli del giorno), was dabbed with a "sauce" of sweet grape tomatoes, garlic, Lucini extra-virgin olive oil, plump English peas, and a hint of balsamic reduction, for a composition of both ephemeral lightness and full-bodied taste.

Vivo's all-Italian wine list is a proper match to its palette of robust Mediterranean flavors. There are Chianti Classicos and Sangioveses from Tuscany; Barolos and Barbarescos from Piemonte; and Pinot Grigios and Traminers from Trentino-Alto Adige, at prices pegged between $26 and almost $300 per bottle. Diners not familiar with Italian vintages can rely on gracious, well-trained staffers for recommendations. In fact, we credit our server for steering us toward something that has become a new favorite, the A Mano Primitivo ($8/glass) from Apuglia, a big, soft Zinfandel-like wine with essence of black cherry.

On the whole, Vivo's desserts (created by Ron Seballos, of Seballos Pastries in Tremont) are worth saving room for. Among the standouts was a sweet-tart lemon-mascarpone semifreddo, served on a dab of blueberry-port reduction, and an unusually light tiramisu, with the unexpected crunch of pecan praline. Warm, crumb-topped apple-and-currant crostada, with vanilla-bean gelato, was faultlessly sweet and buttery, and a chocolate-raspberry bomba was more than intense enough to satisfy any chocoholic's cravings. The only letdown came with a baba au rhum, the classic Italian dessert of rich, brioche-like yeast bread soaked in simple sugar syrup and doused with rum: Not moist enough, or rummy enough, the pretty little cake was a disappointment.

For all its sophistication, there is something almost primitive about digging into Vivo's kind of cooking. A crust of bread dipped in grassy olive oil . . . the searing heat of a pepper-piqued olive . . . the salty gasp from a wisp of cured prosciutto . . . all chased by a mouthful of chewy Chianti, and we might as well be in a cottage outside Siena, breaking bread at a rough-hewn table with a well-muscled grape grower, as sitting in a downtown restaurant. It's Stein's gift to respect the lusty prowess of such rustic foodstuffs, yet to dress them up with modern style and wit.

Ian Fleming would understand this perfectly.


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