Straightforward but sexy tastes at good prices in a crafty environment make il Vecchio an instant local hit.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
It’s an unlikely set of qualifications for a restaurateur: two enthusiastic daughters, an adventurous spirit, a doctorate in clinical psychology, a career in psychotherapy, and experience opening an Indian restaurant in Rome more than 30 years ago.
But that’s precisely what Carl Alasko brings to il Vecchio, his new venture in Pacific Grove. The space seats 78 – enough to scare the bejesus out of an experienced owner in this economy – and even the name, which means “the old,” seems risky.
But it’s a love affair, with little logic required. Alasko’s passion for the trattorias he enjoyed during the 10 years he lived in Rome has not waned and when he found a space with a Carmel stone fireplace, high ceilings and water credits, he just knew. When I expressed surprise at the full house and full waiting area on a recent Wednesday, he said, “It’s like this every night.”
But soon enough, it all makes sense. The open rooms, casual comfort, and bar are terrific – extremely rustic with lots of raw, recycled wood and little color. The interior was designed by Alasko’s daughter Ariele, who built every table with old oak flooring and constructed the bar with kneelers from a church.
Ariele drove a moving van from New York to California, filling it with reclaimed materials from old buildings, barns, diners and churches. She had help with the heavy lifting, but otherwise sawed, nailed and glued the pieces into place herself. She insisted on authenticity – refusing faux finishes or paint brush effects.
There are nine paintings worth mentioning, mostly portraits. They’re an unusual choice – spare and evocative – and good, but not conspicuously so. They remind me of one of those yard sale finds that turns out to be worth a fortune.
The menu is composed of classically styled dishes made with few ingredients, and a fanatic devotion to freshness. Main dishes (secondi piatti) feature protein without accompaniment other than a garnish or bit of greens, so that side dishes can be ordered separately. There are starters (antipasti), pasta or soup (primi piatti), vegetable sides (contorni), and no pizza.
No pizza? Traditionally, trattorias serve pasta and pizzerias serve pizza. There are places that serve both in Italy, particularly more formal ristorantes, but Alasko stuck to his vision. Occasionally he walks around with a spatula and a tray of a cheesy-herb focaccia hot from the oven and gives out slices. I was lucky to get one.
Other delicious-sounding dishes that I did not try include pasta alla carbonara – with pancetta, egg, parmigiano, pecorino, black pepper ($11); and housemade gnocchi with gorgonzola cream sauce and apples ($12). Pork spareribs cooked in wine and tomato sauce over polenta ($14) also sound delectable.
The kitchen staff was trained by the owner of a successful trattoria in Rome, Maccheroni, a connection made through Alasko’s other daughter, who is Italian.
The staff is warm and friendly, though on one visit I had to wait 10 minutes for a table, even with reservations. Somehow it feels like it’s all part of the fun, thanks to a pleasant waiting area and complimentary wine for those in the queue. The wine and food were slow, too (just get the wine out and all will be well), but the service was smooth during a second meal.
Three complimentary items arrive once customers are seated: a bottle of filtered water, a dish of grilled peppers, onions and garlic, and a round of bread. I was amazed at the generosity considering the menu prices are startlingly low.
Three house wines cost only $3 or $4 per glass – and they’re good. I adore the well-balanced Parsonage Family Winery’s 2007 Snosrap Cyrano, a Syrah from Carmel Valley. It’s $4/glass and $20/bottle, which is the suggested retail price. The excellent 2009 Chianti Colli Senesi from Famiglia DeRosa, Montepulciano, Italy ($6/glass or $24/bottle) is very dry and smooth.
It was a cold night, so I wanted a warm plate of contorni as a starter, dispensing with the typical chronology of dishes. The broccoli with garlic in olive oil was satisfying ($5), though you should know it’s prepared Italian style, which would be considered slightly overcooked by local standards. It could be firmer but it’s more flavorful than the hard, bright green, unsalted florets apparently considered superior by some chefs. Try it. See what you think.
The lamb with pappardelle ($16) was re-created from a vivid memory Alasko had of a dish he recalled from Abruzzo. It took some experimenting on his part, but the result is pure comfort food – lamb slowly stewed in red wine, herbs, tomatoes, garlic and onion, then served over a hearty amount of freshly made, ribbon-sized pappardelle. It’s wonderful.
I also recommend the rock cod with a white wine, garlic and pesto sauce and accompanied by a few raw mixed greens ($13). It was moist, fresh, and left room for dessert.
I tried a pumpkin tart and a ricotta tart ($6 apiece), each noticeably less sweet than typical American desserts. The pumpkin tart wasn’t dense enough for me, but I can highly recommend the ricotta tart, with a thick layer of dense cheese and a thin layer of fudgey chocolate on a slightly sweet crust.
Il Vecchio hits big on three important notes – ambience, food and price. It feels more like a party than a business, which might just be its fourth secret to success.
IL VECCHIO 110 Central Ave., Pacific Grove • 5-9:30pm Tue-Sun. •324-4282 • www.ilvecchiorestaurant.com