Via Vite lights up downtown’s piazza with traditional Italian favorites.
By Donna Covrett
Ten minutes ago, the decibel level from the table of four behind me was considerably louder. Glasses were clinking, congratulations were floating around; anecdotes were started, interrupted, and embellished. But now, curiously, they’ve turned quiet. I can make out muted grunts, smacks, and moans. A sigh is followed by a drawn out “Ohhh yeaahh,” then a “Come to papa.” Definitely male. A semi-giggle, a long audible exhale, and then “Oh God!” Decidedly female. It’s as if I’m listening to a late-night soft porn movie from another room—the one your partner is watching when he thinks you’ve fallen asleep. I’m dying to turn around and look, but I already know there is nowhere else to land my eyes if I’m caught staring, as the four diners are directly facing my table from one of Via Vite’s high-backed semicircular booths. I wish I could get a full report on the love-fest taking place behind me, but my dining companion chose this moment to run to the car. I crank my head a little to the right—perhaps I’ll catch a reflection in the glass. Dammit, nothing. Suddenly, there is a low whisper in my left ear. “Lamb shank with polenta. Cioppino. Bolognese. Pork chop.” It’s the server. He scoots away faster than he appeared. He’s my new best friend.
Of course—I should have known. The lamb shank, so tender it practically jumps off the bone. The dreamy polenta: porridge-like, buttery, and sharp from a pitch-perfect dose of parmigiano reggiano. A thick chop of lightly seasoned and grilled pork served simply with peperonata (a compote of yellow and red peppers; it’s the chef’s family recipe). A bowl of penne pasta with classic Bolognese sauce: there is no more perfect partner for pasta than the salty veal and beef. The murky, sweet-and-smoky bowl of the second-best cioppino in the city (the best is served a half mile away at Via Vite’s sibling, Nicola’s). So you see, there was no exaggeration from the table of four. I’ve eaten every one of those dishes multiple times, and I can viscerally recall similar feelings and reactions. I like this place so much, it’s a shame I don’t feel this way about the entire menu.
By the fall of 2007, Fountain Square had been transformed from an uninviting concrete slab to a city-centric crossroads. A free-standing restaurant from the highly regarded Pietoso family was a significant factor in the square’s metamorphosis. Via Vite would become a Midwestern version of a contemporary osteria amid the piazza of our Trevi Fountain. (OK, so you may need to squint a little to get the full effect.)
Via Vite’s architect, Don Beck, created a beautiful and comfortable environment from a glass and steel cube, integrating the inner and outer environments with soaring windows and a second floor balcony that overlooks the square. Mixed materials—dark wood floors, glass tiled walls, polished tables—ease the austerity of steel and glass, while an up-lit staircase of vivid red and green balances the coolness with exuberance. As the Pietosos’ nearby restaurant, Nicola’s, has settled comfortably into its role as a fine dining powerhouse, Via Vite has become a place where Chef Cristian Pietoso can preserve tradition by serving less intricately plated and garnished versions of some of his popular dishes in a 14-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week menu.
Lively lunch crowds are nourished with hearty paninis holding light chicken or caprese salads, or a mound of his grandmother’s peperonata with grilled spicy Italian sausages. There are pastas, satiny soups, and fresh salads, too—slices of hand-crafted buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, or grilled asparagus with roasted beets and goat cheese. I rarely pass up the silky yellow pepper soup, which occasionally appears at dinner; it has the lovely butterscotch hue and condensed flavor of just-picked garden peppers. In addition to his killer Bolognese, lunch customers will find a deconstructed version of Pietoso’s authentic lasagna (with meat and béchamel sauces) on Fridays.
In honoring traditional recipes, Pietoso took a gamble on inzimino: a long-simmered Tuscan stew of spinach and calamari cooked in red wine. If you’ve ever had the Northern Indian stew of saag paneer, you’ll understand the flavor of inzimino. Served in an oversized white bowl and unadorned except for crostini, its humble appearance may disappoint those who expect more from such a shiny restaurant, and its intense flavor tends to draw equally intense reactions: you either love it or you don’t. I love it, but I’ve been with diners who would just as soon arm-wrestle me for the bill as order it again.
Though Pietoso has applied his less-is-more approach to flavor at Via Vite brilliantly for the most part, there a still a few misses, largely in the realm of execution. I’ve savored the featherweight pillows of potato gnocchi that his kitchens are capable of turning out, but I’ve found them to be overworked at Via Vite, a bit dull and heavy. I’ve been served tagliolini pasta both overcooked and undercooked, a disappointment when its wicked-good fresh tomato and basil sauce leaves the impression there’s a couple of Italian grandmothers sweating in the back room. A prominent wood-fired oven heralds a pizza menu, but the thin handmade crusts have been either limp or cracker crisp. Is it the temperature of the oven or a side effect of Pietoso dividing his time between two restaurants? The best kitchens discover purpose in precise repetition of classic recipes, as much to safeguard cultural legacies as to nail down a consistent product.
Wine and spirits add another dimension to a meal at Via Vite. The All-Italian list features wines bright enough with acidity to be menu-friendly, and fruity enough to enjoy on their own. Of the latter, I’ve been keen on Dievole’s Pinocchio, an inexpensive Nero d’Avola similar to a new-world syrah with lots of plum and pepper. But if someone else is paying, the rich polenta and lamb shank with a glass of Barolo practically makes sex obsolete.
Speaking of sex, my voyeuristic nature finally gets the better of me. I turn around, ready to appear as if I’m searching for someone. One of the women at the table where the moans were emanating from sits holding a fork in front of her face. Her plate is empty, so I assume this forkful is the last. Her eyes are closed. She is motionless and smiling as if she is hanging on to a pleasant sensation. She is, of course—right down to the last bite.
Via Vite, 520 Vine St., downtown, (513) 721-8483
Lunch, dinner, and late night menus Mon–Thurs 11 am–1 am, Fri & Sat 11 am–2 am, Sun 1 pm–10 pm (lunch and dinner only).
Bright, contemporary, and fun—the way a restaurant at the heart of the city center should be. The casual Italian menu ranges from sensational to inconsistent dishes, but either way Executive Chef Cristian Pietoso keeps it real.
Moderate. Dinner entrees $16–$26. Even at $25, the braised lamb shank and polenta is one of the best bargains in town.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue.