Who could say no to good, home-cooked Italian food served with a smile?
Thursday, October 17, 2002
Pedro is a fun guy to eat with. He knows and loves food and wine maybe even more than he loves playing golf and betting on sports, and as his enjoyment and understanding pours across the table, his dining companions end up having more fun. He''s known among his friends for this knack.
Pedro was already primed when we settled into our table at Vito''s. He explained that he had been part-way through a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc when I''d picked him up for dinner; "I was talking with my sister on the phone," he said, by way of explanation. It''s that kind of family.
The wines-by-the-glass selection was not extensive-four whites and four reds. We settled on a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio and considered the menu unhurriedly. Pedro said the name of each offering out loud, with a comment about each. The canneloni, in particular, caught his eye-it reminded him of a restaurant owned by a good friend in his old hometown of Chico. He told me about that canneloni, which for a while had been his regular order whenever he went to his friend''s restaurant, and then he told me about the calamari there, which had replaced the canneloni as his favorite dish, and then some more about the canneloni.
When the waitress arrived to take our orders, Pedro wasn''t halfway through the menu, so I suggested some appetizers. I reasoned that we had to get the bruschetta, because it was late September and the tomatoes would be good. Our waitress assured us that Vito has a line on organic tomatoes and that tonight''s were special. I also ordered the carpaccio, figuring it would be awhile before we got to the entrees.
While Pedro struggled deciding among his choices, he pointed out that the wine was opening up nicely. He opined that there are a lot of good Pinot Grigios showing up locally, and that it really is a fine wine, and one of the great bargains right now. Taking another sip, I recognized that it was in fact quite good; I believe it tasted better after he''d noted its quality.
I knew what I wanted already. The special that night was halibut, grilled and served in a picatta sauce, with steamed veggies and a little side of pasta marinara. Pedro was still deliberating when the apps arrived.
The bruschetta was even better than expected. Vito''s does it up with a lot of capers and a bunch of kalamata olives and little garlic, but it was still all about the tomatoes, which were deep red, sweet and pungent. The carpaccio was loaded with capers and more shaved parmesan than I''ve ever seen on a carpaccio; but the thin-sliced raw beef dominated.
The waitress checked back but Pedro was telling a story about a trip to Italy. "Take your time," she said. We ordered a couple of salads and Pedro recommitted himself to perusing the menu. When the salads arrived, he was almost ready to commit, but not quite.
Our waitress returned five or ten minutes later; Pedro bit the bullet and ordered the canneloni. When she informed him that he could have the white sauce or the red, I feared for a moment that it would be another wait. But she suggested that he get both-one on each canneloni. He liked that idea a lot.
I ordered the fish and another glass of the Pinot Grigio. Pedro was perplexed: should he get a white wine to go with the white sauce or a red to go with the red? Hmmm. He looked at the waitress and asked if she would bring him a glass of the Pinot and a half-glass of the Chianti. "Just a little." She agreed instantly.
The salad, by the way, was first-rate.
By the time our entrees arrived, we''d settled in very comfortably. The dining room at Vito''s feels airy and light. We sat by a window overlooking Forest Hill, which is our neighborhood-Pedro and I live a couple blocks from each other. There was a nice homey vibe going, augmented by the friendly service.
Pedro dug into his long-debated canneloni, and was pleased. The filling was more veal than spinach, whereas his beloved Chico canneloni was more spinach. In Italy, he explained, every restaurant has its signature way with canneloni. He put a generous bite on my plate. It was delicious. But nowhere near as good, to my taste that night, as the halibut. I gave Pedro a big chunk of it.
We agreed that perfectly fresh halibut, perfectly cooked, may be the best-tasting fish in Monterey Bay. Local salmon, yellowfin and albacore are all so good. Sand dabs are tasty. But it was hard to imagine at that moment anything quite as good as that halibut. It was grilled just exactly to perfection- seared just barely crisp and evenly tender throughout. The picatta was mild-not too lemony.
Even the veggies were outstanding. The zucchini was sweet; ditto the carrots; the half-head of broccoli was crisp; all had been sauteed in a lightly garlicked oil. The spaghetti marinara was flavorful simplicity (I saved it for last, reversing tradition); the Chianti complex and satisfying.
I would have skipped dessert, but Pedro is not that kind of guy. He couldn''t decide between the cannoli and the tiramisu, so we ordered both. But Pedro was troubled, and the waitress picked up on it. Pedro wanted a glass of port, and there was no port on the menu.
Vito himself stepped out from the kitchen. "No problem," he said. He ran up the street and returned with a bottle of Graham''s.
The cannoli was good. The tiramisu was excellent. The port was delightful. Pedro was happy, and so was I.