I have a confession to make: When my editor said that I'd be reviewing Vito's Café, I scrambled to think of an excuse not to go. "My goldfish died!" "My computer died!" "My appetite died!"
I just knew I had to get out of it. Oh my gawd, singing waiters and spaghetti? No way.
Lora, I'm glad you held the line. Vito's is great.
Skeptically, I had assumed that Mr. Mitchell was going to hate this place. Although he loves music, he's a pretty quiet guy -- and a finicky one.
When we walked in the door and he heard the first few musical notes, I caught The Look. But within minutes, The Look became a smile, and after the first glass of wine he was in his element. Yeoman performances from talented musicians had transported him straight back to Wales, where he'd won the boys' singing competition as a child.
And our friends, including a lady of a much younger demographic, were just as delighted. As the first few notes of "Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera began, she smiled and said, "I played this on the piano when I was little!" By the time that the waitstaff presented Samantha at the next table with her candle-topped cupcake, we were all belting out "Happy Birthday to You."
As Vito himself, with a beaming smile, launched into song, our friend leaned forward and smiled, "Now we know why Vito has a cafe!" Yes, the music was contagious -- and impressive.
The conviviality draws you in, but the genuine talent, professionalism and showmanship of the performers keep you there.
And did I mention that the food was excellent?
Our starters included the grilled Portabella mushroom salad ($8), dressed with one of the sweetest, lightest balsamic vinaigrettes I've ever tasted. The Insalate Caprese ($7) was very good considering that local tomatoes are a few months away -- I think the secret is that marinating the tomatoes in balsamic vinegar ahead of time brings out their flavor.
But best of all was the Antipasto ($12). It featured slices of fresh grilled zucchini, rich cheese, carefully pitted kalamata olives and savory mussels. The quartered mushrooms were crisp and delightful, and even the artichoke hearts were fresh. Bravo!
We were definitely getting into the spirit of things, but not enough to try the Fettuccine Alfredo ($16). Vito makes this dish tableside, adding to the entertainment value by preparing the sauce inside a giant wheel of Parmigiano. Now we're talking musical theater, baby!
Our choices were a bit more subdued, but they were all good. My favorite was the special of the evening, Pasta with Caramelized Scallops and broccoli rapini ($25). After our visit, the new summer menu was introduced, and the scallops are now a regular feature but prepared with pancetta and Jerusalem artichoke purée.
The delicious Pasta Fra Diavolo ($22) is also on the new menu, and I would heartily recommend it to any seafood lover. It was chock-full of clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops. Two of our other entrées, Chicken Arrabbiata ($18) and Pasta con Funghi ($16), have been replaced with fresh choices -- but not because they weren't excellent.
When I called to follow up on our visit, I learned that Vito's chef, Michael Cuffaro, who came on board in January, has begun featuring some of his own signature dishes. Things I'll want to try when we return include Cuffaro's Ragu alla "Bolognese" ($18), a four-hour slow braise of beef, pork and veal, and the beef short ribs with gnocchi ($23). The short ribs already received two thumbs up from a top local chef on his recent visit to Vito's.
By the time we ventured on to coffee, tiramisu, cremebrulée and a fantastic bread pudding with white chocolate shavings ($7 each), I'd lost count of the number of birthday greetings that had been sung. Accompanist Piano Pete has a prodigious repertoire of everything from Sinatra to show tunes, but most impressive was an opera duet that was so romantic that it gave me goose bumps. The majority of the servers study at UC's College Conservatory of Music, although some are from NKU and Miami University and one is a recent graduate who's working the dinner theater circuit.
The four of us ran up a bill but, as Vito explains, a night at the café is more than a meal -- it's a music and dining experience. You never feel rushed; in fact, we waited once or twice for our server to catch up after a performance.
But the atmosphere is so friendly that we just didn't care. Plus we had two lovely bottles of 2003 Arancio Nero d'Avola from Sicily ($28) to enjoy.
And toddling off to bed with a happy man who's still singing "New York, New York"? Priceless. ©
Go: 654 Highland Ave., Fort Thomas
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: Visa, MasterCard and American Express
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of seafood, veggie options