So a recent phone conversation with charming Fairlawn restaurateur Raphael Vaccaro seemed like serendipity. Upgrades to the decor and changes in the kitchen, including chef de cuisine Michael Ferris' promotion to top toque, were just the hooks we needed to lure us back to Vaccaro's Trattoria for the first time in more than five years.
But here's the rub. After two recent visits, it seems that there is something worse than not getting back to an old fave: namely, going back to find the place a bit more flawed than memory had dictated.
Not that our experience was all bad. On the upside, the cozy spot is prettier than ever, thanks to a remodeling that enclosed the small bar and updated the color scheme. Today, coppery brown walls, plenty of windows, and white-cloth-draped tabletops give the place a casually upscale air that belies its setting at one end of a professional office plaza, in the shadow of Interstate 77.
Snazzy martinis and a first-rate wine list, with a focus on boutique wines from family-run operations, add to the considerable charm; and particularly in the evening, when black napkins sprout from capacious crystal wine goblets and oil lamps sparkle on the tables, the vibe is contemporary and notably urbane.
On the other hand, maybe that sophisticated promise is one of the reasons the amateurish service struck us so hard. At dinner, that included a supercilious waiter, who went out of his way to blame the kitchen staff for delays between courses. And at lunch, there was the inexperienced waitress who -- among other gaffes -- brought out my entrée at the same time as she served a companion's appetizer.
As it happens, the weird timing was only one of several problems with our midday meal. More egregious was the fact that nearly everything arrived at the table no better than lukewarm. First affected was a generous starter of battered and fried calamari, beribboned with housemade lemon aïoli and sweet tomato-horseradish marmalade. Had the squid been served hot from the fryer, it probably would have been irresistible; as it was, though -- tepid and quickly losing its crunch -- it was just boring.
Fortunately, the intensely seasoned Italian wedding soup proved more resilient. The homemade combo of golden chicken broth, tiny veal meatballs, ribbons of green escarole, and specks of acini di pepe pasta had won our heart during earlier visits, and no less so now -- even though it, too, arrived at the table barely above room temperature.
It was back to Dullsville, though, with a lunchtime vegetarian risotto. Despite slender slices of oyster, cremini, and shiitake mushrooms, and a handful of overcooked sugar-snap peas, the flavors were flat and uninspired, and the fact that the rice was still on the crunchy side didn't help.
(Incidentally, although our waitress couldn't help but have noticed that we were sending back most dishes nearly untouched, she never asked why; needless to say, she didn't offer to make any adjustments to our bill either.)
Happily, things heated up -- literally -- during a dinner visit the following weekend.
Among the standouts, an ample starter of roasted Duxbury mussels, in a steamy, herb-and-tomato-studded broth of butter and vermouth, hit all the right notes, from the huge yet dainty shellfish to the richly rounded broth that we eagerly soaked up with hunks of housemade focaccia. And as an entrée, a thick filet of gently grilled salmon couldn't have been fresher or more delicate; a scattering of mandarin oranges and a drizzle of olive oil infused with tangerine and lemon essences made zesty cohorts.
À la carte salads were a mixed bag. The sweet "pears and nuts" version included tender greens, plenty of plump berries, crumbled Gorgonzola, and an ample supply of chewy, sugar-coated pecans, along with a few transparent pear slices. But a caprese salad -- a pretty composition of sliced red tomato and white mozzarella, garnished with a chiffonade of fresh basil -- was a disappointment, due to the surprisingly flavorless tomato and a lack of salt and pepper.
Perhaps the oddest dish of the night, though, was the pulled-pork carbonara, a lugubrious mass of spinach linguine, tender (and slightly fatty) pulled pork, and heavy béchamel. A scattering of sweet but overcooked pea pods was a step in the right direction. But rather than crisp contrast, cubes of soft, bacon-like guanciale (cured pork jowl) just added to the heft.
In retrospect, maybe we should have gone for the penne with homemade veal Bolognese. Five years ago, we adored it. Let's hope some things never change.
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