By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Vino & Olio is expansive in ambition, extravagant in design, and expensive in price; that's not what the times demand. Most of the 5,600-square-foot Design District restaurant is elegantly dressed in curvy blond woods, and a large window into the kitchen offers a compelling view of gastronomic proceedings. But the 220-seat space is anchored by black walls lined with dark wine racks and backlit glass squares glowing in primary hues. Combined with a sizable bar area and DJ-spun thumps, Vino appears more like a stylish nightclub than a restaurant. This assessment is bolstered by posters bookending the restrooms — one of a naked woman fondling her crotch, and the other a closeup of a pierced nipple. Club décor? Sure. Artwork for a dining establishment? Well, let's just say Vino has more pressing problems to worry about.
The food, for instance, is more typical of what you would find on your plate at a club than a fine dining venue. This is surprising, as chef Andrea Menichetti's bloodline and background promise otherwise. He hails from Montemerano in the Tuscan region of Italy. His parents, Valeria Piccini and Maurizio Menichetti, founded the Michelin two-star Da Caino restaurant in Maremma, where Andrea worked when he was younger (he also trained at his best friend's establishment, Il San Pietro di Positano). At Vino, Menichetti is sabotaged by inconsistent preparation.
Take the butternut squash soup with mushrooms and house-made ricotta cheese. It would have been a lot better had the texture not been that of a thick purée — and if it was served piping hot rather than lukewarm. Focaccia rolls served prior to the soup were homemade and passable, but doughier and heavier than this or any type of bread usually is (and on one occasion, a couple of the rolls were rock hard).
Another example of botched execution came via an intriguing matchup of eggplant parmesan and sweetbreads, slices of each layered with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese, then topped with melted burrata cheese. It turned out to be a poorly prepared pileup of old, dry flavors: Thin sweetbreads were partially burned to a coffee color in the sautéing process, and seemed as though they'd been made much earlier and reheated once too often. The cap of burrata was freshly melted on top, although applying heat to this cheese undercuts most of its appealing milky quality. This is not what one expects when paying $17 for an appetizer.
Kudos to the Tuscan chef for eschewing a cookie-cutter Italian menu, and instead recreating regional dishes we haven't seen before in local eateries — such as the aforementioned eggplant and sweetbread combo, or a smoked eel pâté with celeriac sauce. The latter item eluded us during our visits, but we did sample elogio al pomodoro, the chef's "celebration of the tomato": a panzanella salad, tomato jelly with pesto, tomato pizza, and cherry tomato stuffed with a chive-flecked cream cheese. The panzanella was compelling enough with tuna and eggs, but the jelly, pizza, and cream cheese variations were like mediocre hors d'oeuvres served by a redundant caterer.
As with other dishes here, the half-dozen pastas are successful in a literary sense: They read well on paper. Pappardelle all'aglio dolce accoppiate al parmigiano con ragu' di pollo marinato e pomodoro fresco sure sounds good, right? It tasted good, too, with thick, coarse, handmade garlic and rosemary pappardelle noodles bathed in a light butter and parmesan sauce. Yet we were expecting sweet, ripe bursts of fresh tomato, and moist shreds of hot-from-the-wood-oven roast chicken — not a teeny dice of pale tomato and the sort of small, overcooked cubes of poultry one might find in take-out chicken fried rice. Delicate, freshly made pecorino and ricotta cheese tortelli were better, the half-dozen squares centered by an accompanying "earthy beetroot sauce" — really just a smidgeon of beet purée.
A main course of octopus, first boiled then grilled, brought two logs of thick, not particularly tender tentacles and two thinner, tastier tentacle ends. The overall flavor was neutral, as there were no potent lemon, garlic, or herb flavors added. Sides consisted of deftly sautéed green beans and what tasted like bland, day-old home fries.
Succulent wedges of roast pork rolled with fennel, onion, spices and herbs then slowly cooked for 12 hours, were plated with a smear of green pea purée and sauté of wild mushrooms (including porcini). They were so moist and packed with authentic, delectable country Italian flavor that my frustration with Vino & Olio only intensified. It was like watching a favorite sports team stumble through enough of the season to put itself out of contention, and then witnessing the same group sweep through the latter games with confidence and ease. The inevitable question would boil to the surface: Why didn't you play like that all year? Or, in this case: How come you didn't cook everything else — or anything else — like that?
Almond cannoli were delectable too. A pair of thin, crisp, phyllo dough wrappings contained deep, dark chocolate mousse within, both pooled in a light Grand Marnier cream sauce (I'm not certain where the almonds came in). And instead of omniscient Key lime pie, Menichetti offered a martini glass of bright green tea jello and barely-sautéed apples crowned by a cookie covered with dabs of cinnamon cream. The combination of flavors and textures worked far better than anyone could have hoped for, but proportions proved unpopular among those partaking: too much cinnamon cream, and not nearly enough green tea jelly.