Restaurant Review

Old meets new, tastefully

CorrespondentOctober 14, 2011 

  • 1106 Grace Park Drive, Morrisville


    Cuisine: Italian

    Rating: **1/2 (two and a half stars)

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: casual mix of traditional and modern

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: friendly and well-trained

    Recommended: mussels appetizer, homemade pastas, pizza

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar (excellent wine list); accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; occasional live entertainment

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent Above average Average Fair

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Step inside, and immediately the chartreuse glow of Vino's backlit bar catches your eye from across the dining room. Looking around, you take in the serpentine granite-topped bar, glazed concrete floors, and aluminum-framed windows reaching up to a 12-foot-high ceiling. Suspended from that ceiling, near the entrance, a trellised wood frame suggests a grape arbor, sans grapes, in streamlined allusion to the restaurant's name.

Just as you're beginning to pigeonhole Vino as a "contemporary" restaurant, though, you notice the sheer curtains taking the edge off the stark lines of those windows. Potted ferns further soften the look, as do traditional paintings with a recurring wine bottle motif hanging on parchment walls.

So what kind of Italian restaurant is Vino, you wonder: traditional or contemporary?

It's both, as becomes evident when you open the menu. The antipasto offering wanders freely from classic prosciutto with melon to trendy grilled polenta cakes with caramelized shiitake and cremini mushrooms. Other starter options include vegetarian minestrone, Caesar salad with a made-to-order dressing, and Prince Edward Island mussels in a rustic brew of fish broth and tomatoes. The obligatory fried calamari gets a more-than-respectable rendering, though the portion is on the skimpy side for $8.

Given the restaurant's culinary ambitions, you might be tempted to pass over the pizzas. That would be a mistake. Topping options span the globe from Mediterraneo (fresh tomato, feta and pesto) to Hawaiian (ham and pineapple) on an excellent thin, blistery crust that comes a little closer to Naples than New York.

The culinary dichotomy becomes more sharply defined when it comes to entrees, which are divided into "Old World" and "New World" sections. Under the first heading, the names of dishes are in Italian and take their inspiration from the classics: fettuccine alla Bolognese, lasagne pasticciate all'Emiliana, Salmone alla Livornese. "New World" translates, as you might expect, to Italian-American fare, rendered in English: spaghetti with meatballs, bowtie pasta with chicken and mushrooms, salmon "cioppino style."

Regardless of which side of the Atlantic you choose to dip your fork into, chances are reasonably good you'll come up with a winner. Twirl the tines in a plate of spaghetti, and you bring up a skein of al dente pasta and a chunky tomato sauce that owes its bright flavor to the fact that it's cooked to order.

Nor will you go wrong with veal and spinach ravioli, which lives up to its signature billing with a surprisingly delicate filling encased in tender pillows of pasta, and a subtly sweet, parmesan-tinged mascarpone cream sauce.

The ravioli are homemade, as are most of the pastas at Vino. Ricotta-enriched cavatelli, say, with a fresh tomato sauce and mozzarella. Or potato gnocchi in a creamy basil pesto. Or lasagna, layered with béchamel and a gently seasoned meat sauce under a blanket of molten mozzarella.

With salmon as its featured ingredient, Vino's take on cioppino doesn't pretend to be a faithful rendering of the classic seafood stew. But it's rewarding, and captures the spirit of the original with mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp (slightly overcooked, the only off note in a harmonious combination) in a hearty tomato-based stew.

Veal saltimbocca tempts with a promise of scaloppine, prosciutto and the sage that for many define the dish but is all too often missing. Dry, chewy veal kept the dish from delivering on that promise.

Such serious flaws are mercifully rare. But minor miscues - polenta cakes whose surface falls short of the crispness implied by their "crostini" description, crème brûlée that has picked up stray flavors in the refrigerator - are more common than you'd like to see in a restaurant that has been open since January.

Still, hits outnumber misses by a good margin, and general manager Scott Munro, who joined the team in the summer, is working to smooth out the rough edges. Service is already a notch above the norm.

The wine list lives up to the restaurant's name, with a thoughtfully chosen, reasonably priced mix of Old World and New World labels and a few offbeat surprises - which pretty well sums up the restaurant as a whole.

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