When Dawn Cupero returned from Italy in the summer of 2006, she brought back more than a suitcase full of souvenirs. She came home with the idea of opening her first restaurant. But, as anyone who talks to the gregarious Cupero for more than five minutes knows, her ideas are far too prolific and fluid to be contained in a single traditional concept. That's why Vines Bistro, which Cupero opened in July, isn't quite like any other Italian restaurant you've seen.
Granted, the differences are for the most part subtle. But they add up. The iron scrollwork and stained-glass pendant lights evocative of Spain or Morocco, for instance, which tastefully blend with tapestries and sun-splashed Italian landscapes for a romantic, broadly Mediterranean look. The TV over the mahogany bar, an unobtrusive reminder that Cupero envisions Vines Bistro as a neighborhood wine bar as well as a restaurant. The wine list, whose 60-plus listings (including 17 by the glass) are dominated not by Italian but by California labels.
The menu holds a few surprises, as well. For the most part, the offering is a mix of traditional Italian fare and chef John Fendick's contemporary riffs on the cuisine. But Fendick, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, sometimes sneaks across the border for, say, baked brie topped with caramelized walnut rum butter, or a baked Italian onion soup that for all the world tastes just like its famous French cousin. On occasion, the chef even crosses oceans, as he did with a recent appetizer special featuring coriander-crusted ahi tuna with a ginger soy glaze. And a regular menu offering called firecracker del gambero features a Cajun-inspired dark ale sauce.
Such culinary wanderlust is the exception, however. Those seeking traditional fare will find it amply represented by an offering that starts with crisp-crusted (and only slightly chewy) fried calamari and ends in house-made tiramisu and a delightfully light and lemony mascarpone cheesecake. In between, the comfort of the familiar is served up in the form of entrees and pasta dishes such as veal Marsala, penne alla vodka and eggplant rollatini. Gnocchi with sweet Italian sausage in a chunky pomodoro sauce made with fresh plum tomatoes is especially rewarding. So is veal saltimbocca, layered with prosciutto and sage, sautéed in a tomato-enriched demi-glace and served with broccoli raab and a more than respectable risotto. Chicken Parmesan comes close to the mark, too, though the chicken could be a bit more tender.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Chicken Santa Maria should hit the spot for anyone in search of little more adventure but still wanting to remain on Italian turf. Featuring a chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, spinach and oven-roasted tomatoes, served over gnocchi tossed in pancetta brown butter, it's a winner. Especially the sauce, which will make you wish you had a private dining room so you could lick the plate.
There's also a bistro menu, with options including panini (a Sicilian style steak, and a grilled marinated chicken breast with broccoli raab, roasted red peppers and mozzarella), a selection of appetizers and a half portion of penne alla vodka. These are just right for lighter appetites -- say, when you're sitting at the bar and just want a little something to go with your wine.
Service isn't flawless, but the staff are uniformly friendly, and lapses are minor. Even if a waiter does occasionally forget to bring a promised breadbasket, the ever-solicitous general manager Jennifer Colasuonno is usually there to pick up the slack.
It's too early to predict long-term success, but Dawn Cupero's outside-the-box thinking appears to have produced a winning formula. If Vines Bistro does succeed, there will certainly be a touch of irony in its success. Three Italian restaurants in a row -- Il Sogno, Frankie & Dino's, and Cinelli's Pizzeria -- have tried in that location and failed. It happens that all three were traditional Italian restaurants owned by established restaurateurs. Sometimes it pays to look at things from a fresh perspective.