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Old World, New Look 

Vivo dishes out classic Italian flavors and modern atmosphere.

Go ahead, get funky: Seared rare tuna with glazed onions and cucumber noodles. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Go ahead, get funky: Seared rare tuna with glazed onions and cucumber noodles.
"Do you think you have to be Italian to get this?" my companion wondered aloud as we set about demolishing an ample antipasto platter at downtown's Vivo one recent evening. One paisano to another, her question called for a pithy response. But alas -- bread in one hand, a curl of parmesan in the other, and a slice of spicy capicolla playing leapfrog across my taste buds -- all I could muster was what probably didn't end up as an eloquent shrug.

Such are the joys of rustic Mediterranean food: cured meats, sharp cheeses, and smoky slabs of eggplant, just like Nonna used to make. And if scarfing down these age-old delights in a space as sleek and urbane as any in the city seems a trifle wacky . . . well, let's just say that the contrast remains part of the tasty frisson that exists because of Vivo's surroundings and what arrives on its plates.

It's been three years since Vivo opened on the Euclid Avenue end of downtown's Old Arcade. But particularly in light of the 2004 departure of talented chef Todd Stein and the May arrival of new chef and GM Michael Herschman, the restaurant has remained remarkably true to its vision: to serve bold, rustic Italian cuisine in a hip, stylish setting.

Credit that consistency to restaurateur Dan Krasny, the Cleveland native and Ohio University grad who hatched the Vivo concept on a Chicago street corner in 1991. The result -- the original Vivo, nestled in a storefront in Chicago's revitalized market district -- created such a stir that Krasny tried to replicate it in Cleveland.

Basic to the concept is the menu of tightly constructed Italian standards; no surprise then that, other than the inevitable price creep, the bill o' fare has changed little since opening day. Eleven starters and salads range from bruschetta, calamari, and the earthy antipasto della casa (which, when we visited, also included grilled baby asparagus, a scattering of green and cured olives, sweet-tart peperonata, and rosy folds of bresaola and prosciutto, sheer as silk panties but far more flavorful) to a handful of colorful salads, including a lush red-and-yellow beet composition, artfully arranged with radicchio, Belgian endive, and crumbs of soft goat cheese, and kissed with a translucent sherry-thyme vinaigrette.

Generously sized entrées include seven pasta dishes, four fish or seafood items, and half a dozen secondi piatti, starring such savories as wood-grilled rib steak, Amish chicken breast, and veal. And if only the heartiest of eaters will really need one of the à la carte side dishes to round out a meal (not to mention a waistline), add-ons like pecorino-enhanced mashed potatoes or grilled veggies with a balsamic drizzle still make for companionable sharing 'round the table.

Such a well-structured menu leaves little room for self-expression in the kitchen, however. So while Herschman was well known for his global tendencies and small-plate preferences at his former Tremont restaurant, Mojo, fans should know better than to come to Vivo looking for tiger-shrimp tempura or sweet-potato quesadillas. In fact, about as funky as Herschman's current cucina seems to get is an entrée of seared rare tuna with marcona almonds and cucumber noodles. On the other hand, one night's pesce del giorno -- perfectly roasted, prosciutto-wrapped monkfish, rich and buttery as lobster, eased down into a shallow seafood brodetta, just right for sopping up with the firm Italian bread -- could scarcely have seemed more classic in its spare Mediterranean elegance.

Among the wood-grilled meats, enormous twin pork chops proved to be an awe-inspiring option too, both for their otherworldly succulence and their mild but profoundly well-seasoned savor. The chops' underpinnings included a foursome of long, crisp-edged polenta "frites" (an experiment undertaken by many kitchens, but rarely as successfully) and a flounce of leaf lettuces piled up with chopped pepper-and-eggplant caponata.

Pasta, of course, is the sine qua non of the Italian cucina, and here, oddly enough, the kitchen faltered. While the freshly made ravioli del giorno offered a well-balanced blend of flavors with its combo of oversized pasta pockets stuffed with minced roasted chicken and feta, and served in a pecorino cream sauce with thin spears of asparagus, bits of leek, and split red grapes for a whisper of acidic contrast, the same can't be said about the potato gnocchi, which proved to be the low point of our visits. Tender and light, but untidy-looking, the free-form dumplings seemed to disappear -- visually and gustatorily -- into their bland white sauce; worse, huge slabs of locally grown, organic oyster mushrooms were poorly trimmed, so that several of them were too fibrous to penetrate even with a fork.

Though thoroughly delicious, a carpaccio starter also fell short because of its stingy portion size. A half-dozen or so vaporous slices of nearly raw beef filet were no more substantial than smoke; a tidy pile of sharp arugula, a few wide ribbons of pecorino, a hint of truffle oil, and perhaps six crunchy, salty fried capers completed the three-bite dish, which, at $13, we had foolishly intended to share with a companion.

On a more positive note, though, we must report that Vivo has always made the city's best Bellini, that famous blend of Prosecco and white peach juice invented at Harry's Bar in Venice. Now the bartenders have done themselves one better, with the Bellinitini, fortified with vodka and served, up, in a martini glass. At $10 a hit, it's a pricey adventure, but these little babies are boffo enough to warrant serving them by the pitcher.

The beer list includes bottled faves like Guinness, Bass, Harp, Blue Moon, Hoegaarden, Pilsner Urquell, and, of course, Peroni. Oddly enough, there is also a handful of sakes; while that's not what comes to mind when we think of Mediterranean cuisine, it does make for a refreshing change of pace while reflecting the beverage's growing status as the hipster's heartthrob.

The moderately sized international wine list, on the other hand, was mostly resistible. Only about a dozen selections are available by the glass, and about the same number can be had by the half-bottle; among these, oddly, only one of each is an Italian red, and none is an Italian white. They're also relatively expensive: Most bottle prices are pegged at $35 and up, and a bottle of Caymus Conundrum, which we recently spotted on the Pier W wine list for $37, here goes for $54. As a result, we stuck to San Pellegrino; at $7 for a 750ml bottle, the sparkling water was a delicious bargain.

Speaking of beverages, don't miss the oversized mugs of creamy, almost latte-like cappuccino at meal's end. They put an especially nice finish on the small assortment of competently crafted desserts from local Seballos' Pastries -- a petite disk of orange-zest-studded ricotta cheesecake on one visit, an especially chocolaty tiramisu on another.

Now, one final bit of griping. During earlier visits to Vivo, we had developed a real jones for the little assortment of complimentary olives that appeared at every table. Not only did they provide the perfect nosh while we perused the menu; they also seemed to epitomize traditional Italian hospitality. So we were highly bummed to find all the tabletops oliveless when we paid a weeknight visit. Even worse was our Saturday-night discovery: Our table setup included no olives, but the unoccupied table to our left did!

There was nothing to be done, of course, but to request some olives of our own, an entreaty that our friendly server responded to without hesitation. A few minutes later -- bread in one hand, a plump little kalamata in the other, and the taste of a tangy picholine now playing leapfrog across our taste buds -- our contentment was complete. (During a later phone conversation, incidentally, Herschman vowed that the lack of olives was an unintentional oversight, not a new cost-control measure.)

So now that my mouth is no longer full, allow me to elaborate: An appreciation of wholesome, earthy fare such as Vivo's is probably innate; and, yes, even if you aren't Italian, I'm pretty certain that you'll get it.

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