"It's just like Joe Millionaire," mumbled a companion as she stuffed her face with my gnocchi. "You remember . . . that night they went out to eat, and Evan liked Sarah's dinner better than he liked his own?"
Good grief . . . may nothing in my life ever again resemble an incident from a Fox reality series. But that stipulated, my friend was right: The Gnocchi Bolognese at Vetturini's was definitely worth switching plates for -- and that's saying a mouthful, considering that almost everything we sampled at this friendly Murray Hill restaurant was commendable.
While an Italian restaurant in Little Italy may seem about as remarkable as snowdrifts in Chardon, chef-owner Anthony Vetturini deserves special recognition for his repertoire of unusually good-tasting, moderately priced dishes. Although his menu is neither large nor trendy, Vetturini and his staff see to it that ingredients are fresh and flavors are bold and enticing. Ample portion sizes don't hurt. Neither does the fact that entrées -- most priced at less than $20 -- come with a choice of an above-average mesclun salad, accented with roasted red pepper, olives, cucumber, diced scallion, freshly made croutons, and shredded provolone, in a mellow balsamic vinaigrette; or a particularly savory version of Italian Wedding Soup, with fresh spinach, carrots, pasta, and tiny handmade meatballs, in a robust broth piqued with bits of roasted poultry. And let us not overlook the satisfying slices of Orlando's dense Italian bread that arrive at the table soon after guests are seated, along with fragrant dipping oil imbued with essences of sun-dried tomato, garlic, pine nuts, rosemary, and parsley, and finished with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. When this kind of effort goes into such oft-neglected items, diners can bet they are in for a treat.
Although the menu features mostly trattoria standards such as Veal Marsala, Chicken Parmesan, and Spaghetti and Meatballs, the kitchen doesn't use this as an excuse to snooze. One evening's giant stuffed portobello mushroom cap, for instance, wasn't conceptually unique, but its filling of finely ground sausage and shredded provolone was exceedingly lean and meaty, with a lingering, spicy warmth; and settled on a bed of well-balanced marinara, the starter was a big, bright hug for the taste buds. Juicy-crisp prosciutto-wrapped shrimp also got the nod: In an imaginative touch, each plump, grilled shrimp was settled on a drop of thick cantaloupe-and-Triple Sec coulis and sided with a tiny wedge of fresh lemon, for an arresting and well-managed interplay of sweet, salty, and fruity tastes.
Among main courses, the kitchen's take on Veal Saltimbocca (thinly pounded, lightly breaded, and truly tender veal, topped with prosciutto, provolone, and sautéed portobello mushrooms) was moist and savory; and with its layering of kicky flavors, it was one of the few versions we've found that actually lived up to its name (which translates as "jump mouth"). Piquant Chicken Piccata also had all the right stuff, with almost paper-thin medallions of tender breast meat glossed with a sheer sauce of lemon and white wine. A side of freshly made spaghetti, from Ohio City Pasta, was the perfect finishing touch to both plates.
Vetturini's version of Frutti de Mare, however, was pretty standard stuff. Judging by its ubiquity on Italian restaurant menus, this toss of assorted seafood and pasta has plenty of fans. But in my book, it's a culinary miscalculation, no matter where it surfaces. With such finger-food ingredients as tail-on shrimp and shell-bound mussels slicked with sauce and tossed with slippery noodles, the dish is always a chore to eat, as well as a minefield for anyone wearing good threads. Then, there's the even more basic issue of taste: Do the delicate flavors of most fish and seafood really improve when paired with bold sauces of garlic and tomato? Is the transparency of good-quality pasta actually enhanced with essence of fish? Not in my opinion. Too bad, then, that Vetturini's rendition of the dish, with the predictable tail-on shrimp, big bouquets of calamari tentacles, and mussels, tossed with fettuccine in a garlicky tomato sauce, was a run-of-the-mill affair: messy and labor-intensive to eat, and with the predictable hodgepodge of muddled flavors.
That said, though, the kitchen recaptured the high ground with a bang-up version of chargrilled salmon. Thick and lush, the gently cooked filet profited from a light housemade Hollandaise, and was well matched by buttery mashed redskins and juicy sautéed mushrooms and red pepper on the side (no boring, undercooked, unseasoned broccoli florets here). And the Gnocchi Bolognese? Fit for a millionaire, with dainty, light-textured pasta knots that practically floated above a hearty tomato-and-Merlot sauce, made not with plebeian ground meat, but in the traditional Italian fashion, with ultra-rich braised pork, and given a fillip of heat from a touch of hot pepper.
The surroundings at Vetturini's are almost as warm and tasty as the food. Set in a circa-1915 carriage house that was previously home to Villa d'Este, the restaurant is cozy, intimate, and handsomely appointed, with lots of wood, stone, and brass. The small barroom, with its dim lighting, crimson walls, and a massive fieldstone fireplace, has a decidedly rustic feel, while the slightly more formal dining room, with gleaming chandeliers, mirrors, and Friday- and Saturday-night recitals by a string trio from the Cleveland Institute of Music, radiates a relaxed version of Old World elegance. In both rooms, linen- and-lace-topped tables sparkle with votive candles, tall goblets, and hefty flatware; and while salt and pepper aren't part of the tabletop tableau, no one is likely to miss them.
We did, however, find ourselves missing our server during much of a Saturday-night visit, when the restaurant was packed and the friendly, well-intentioned staffers seemed ever more deeply in the weeds. Vetturini confirms he was short-staffed that night. As a result, it seemed to take forever for dishes to arrive; used plates and flatware were rarely cleared; a second glass of wine, ordered before the arrival of our entrées, wasn't delivered until after we finished dining; and cups of creamy cappuccino, requested before dessert, didn't arrive until we'd put away the final crumbs of some pretty good homemade cheesecake and the last droplets of superlative mandarin-orange gelato. On the other hand, service was fine on a quiet Thursday evening, and Vetturini says he has recently hired more servers to handle the weekend rush.
While we're pondering possible improvements, we also wish the owner would consider upgrading the small international wine list to better complement the kitchen's good works. A broader selection of by-the-glass and by-the-bottle styles, and the addition of some half-bottle choices, would be a start. The inclusion of vintages and brief tasting notes are other user-friendly enhancements that just might help him sell more wine. And the bartenders would do well to keep a closer eye on their opened stock: When one night's glass of Badiolo Chianti ($5) arrived flat and brown, our server quickly admitted that it was the last pour from an "old" bottle. She promptly replaced it, but the incident left a bad taste on the palate.
However, the 18-month-old restaurant is still coming into its own, and if Vetturini's service and wine list aren't on par with the food and decor quite yet, they shouldn't be hard to amend. This is clearly a restaurant with a smart, hardworking kitchen and a warm and gracious heart. A little tweaking here and there, and Vetturini's can easily stake a claim to being one of the best Italian restaurants in the best Italian neighborhood in town.