Vincenzo's proves that, as far as restaurants go, homey, diner-style decor doesn't necessarily mean unimaginative food. The tight quarters -- which allow for only a dozen or so tables and booths -- are surrounded by kitschy, framed artwork and photographs from Italy. Servers hustle through tight spaces with ease, allowing guests to preview entrées with envy as meals are delivered to adjacent tables. Daily specials are marked high on a chalkboard, set where guests from any seat can see, and smells from the kitchen and nearby tables trigger automatic growling and anticipation.
Vincenzo's also proves that a restaurant doesn't have to be located near downtown to draw a dinner crowd -- even during the week. We were advised to arrive early, especially on a weekend, as the place doesn't take reservations, and the regulars know this. However, the lack of tables didn't deter hopeful diners, many of whom waited an hour outside on wooden benches on this hot, Saturday evening. Many others strolled quickly in and out to catch a whiff of the sauces and grab orders for carry-out.
The locals know this place not just as Vincenzo's, but as the original Germano's. Vincenzo Mazzocca, who once worked as chef at Champs at the Hyatt, then with the Germano family, bought the location in 1996 when Germano's moved to an expanded space in Montgomery.
Although he retained many of the regular customers, he admits his Northern Italian cooking style is different from the fare offered by Germano's. He also admits such an unusual setting (did I mention you get to the restrooms by going outside?) might not be what every diner is looking for. Yet folks just keep coming.
By arriving just after opening, we were able to grab one of the last remaining open booths. As we sipped on our wine (two of just a few selections, many offered by the glass), we contemplated the antipasti. I admired the Mozzarella Capricciosa ($7.95) as it was delivered nearby, my favorite antipasti of Roma tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and olive oil, served here with muffuletta.
We opted instead for the evening's featured appetizer, Calamari Fritte ($7.95). It arrived with homemade, chunky and fragrant marinara sauce that was a perfect accompaniment. Although I usually avoid calamari, my husband convinced me that I had never had it prepared properly -- before this. Ours was only lightly breaded and quickly fried to avoid the greasy taste I dislike. And unlike calamari I have had at other establishments, ours here was not overcooked, still retaining its firm texture. The generous serving of marinara also allowed us bonus dipping for our Italian bread.
Choosing an entrée was much more difficult. The menu boasts many pasta (paste) and chicken (pollo) selections, as well as a few pork (maiale) choices. But the evening's specials are where to look if you're unsure. They typically include a few varieties of fish, prepared piccata (light, lemon and white wine sauce), blackened or grilled, as well as other dishes. My husband ordered the Pollo Ravioli Vesuvio ($14.95) for his entrée. The dish is a cornucopia of Italian flavors: a lightly breaded chicken breast, served with three large raviolis -- one stuffed with chicken and smoked mozzarella, one with sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta, and the last with spinach and sweet Italian sausage -- all topped with a light, buttery cream sauce.
My Pollo Aurora ($13.95) combined bowtie pasta, two lightly-breaded chicken breasts, broccoli, a variety of mushrooms, and mozzarella in an incredible sauce. Our server described it as a tomato sauce with just a hint of cream -- enough to soften the tomato flavor. The result was still a light sauce, but with enough garlic, basil and tomato flavor to carry through the cream and truly make the dish.
Too full to order individual desserts, we split a piece of tiramisu ($3.95) to top off our meal. Although not made on the premises, the dessert adheres to Vincenzo's recipe, and equals his other features in quality and taste.
Dining in a former gas station may seem unusual to some, but for the quality, taste and service, Vincenzo's offers an unmatched deal. Just goes to show you, you'll never know what you find when you venture out for something a little different.
Go: 11085 Springfield Pike, Springdale
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Reasonable to Moderate
Payment: Cash or personal check only.
Vegetarian Friendliness: A few options, including antipasti selections and pasta dishes.
Other: Carry-out and catering available.