Like Rigatoni For Roti
I could blame Zagat for my heading to Caffe Vialetto with visions of haute conch and upscale callaloo in my head, but I'm too big for that. It's true the dining guide ranks the restaurant number three in the "Top Caribbean" category, yet while I had never been to, or even heard of the place before, I have only myself to fault for not seeing the Italian writing on the wall -- I mean, what kind of Caribbean restaurant calls itself Caffe Vialetto? A more astute person than I might also have noticed a red flag pop up by the number-two spot on that same Zagat listing -- the not-very-Caribbean Azul. So I take full responsibility for ending up with rigatoni rather than roti, and give credit to Caffe Vialetto for offering enough of a gratifying dining experience that I was able to overcome my initial disappointment.
The cozy, 50-seat white-tablecloth room could put anyone at ease. Thick wooden shutters cover the storefront windows, a wide range of music gets pumped pleasantly through the speakers, and artwork (of debatable beauty) adorns the walls. One caveat concerning comfort: Although the space exudes a welcoming warmth, if you're prone to chills from potent air conditioning you'd better bring along a sweater.
Personable service also smoothed my mood, and by the time I had dipped a few slices of warm, home-baked bread into a dish of freshly diced ripe tomatoes tossed with basil and olive oil, I was set for, as our waiter described it, an "Italian/fusion" dinner.
Chef William Hernandez is from the Dominican Republic, and he does admittedly splash one or two Caribbean ingredients onto the menu. Velvety malanga soup would be one such dish, and a good one, but was barely warmed through. After sending the bowl back for reheating it returned a minute later, freshly microwaved and steamy hot.
The first appetizer sampled was "baked, fat-free duck salad." Talk about missing red flags -- what was I thinking? Perhaps I can justify my choice by pointing out the short supply of compelling starters -- only six in all, and under doctor's orders I am trying to avoid eating fried calamari and beef carpaccio for at least a week. That left four (plus a few specials). One of the more creative comprised two fried-potato parcels packed with melted goat cheese and pine nuts. Nice idea, and somewhat impressive in that the cheese didn't leak out, but the potatoes weren't cooked through, should have been crisper, and needed a more assertive partner than raspberry dressing drizzled over sliced cucumbers. A limp clump of alfalfa sprouts atop the potato pockets didn't do much either.
Daisy-petal squiggles of honey mustard sauce likewise offered only meek support for an otherwise scrumptious salmon-crabcake, the fried, breaded patty flaking apart freshly upon fork's impact, the light pink interior accurately foreshadowing a mostly salmon flavor. No sauce was needed to punch up two juicy jumbo shrimp baked with a savory saline coating of potent prosciutto and melted mozzarella cheese.
And then there were the flavor-free, fat-free, overcooked slices of duck breast, so devoid of moisture it was difficult to imagine this bird's feathers ever having touched water. The mound of mesclun greens below the duck was sprightly dressed in sesame vinaigrette, the salad surrounded by tomato wedges, cucumber discs, canned mandarin orange segments, and a sprinkling of slivered almonds. A thatch of shoestring potato sticks topping the duck contributed a redundant dryness.
Fortunately the wait team was on the ball in pouring water. Service was strong, especially on a weekend visit when six waiters worked the sixteen tables. On a weekday trip half that number were serving, only one of whom could be considered professional -- he was, in fact, an excellent waiter. Would have been nice if he was our only one, but Vialetto uses a system of teamwork, whereby waiters pick up each others' slack -- good in that you rarely have to wait long for service, annoying when lack of communication between them leads to being asked the same questions twice. Then again, sometimes even this echo effect works to advantage, as when our table was left dumbstruck by a waiter's comically indecipherable recital of specials ("fy mozzarell aporto blemush oomy and tutto"). Shortly afterward the more polished waiter came by and, unaware that we had already been privy to a kind-of reading, repeated the listing -- starting with "fried mozzarella with portobello mushroom and prosciutto."
The chef takes more chances than I was willing to -- after the duck fiasco it didn't seem like a good idea to risk strawberry-blue cheese risotto. I sought refuge instead in a trio of softly textured, elongated veal medallions sautéed with shiitake mushrooms in a rich rosemary and truffle-boosted demi-glace. Veal osso bucco was also tender, as this slow-cooked cut always is, but it sat upon an overly salty saffron risotto and was capped by a petite smattering of mushily overcooked vegetables. Most other entrées are satisfactorily accompanied by broccoli, carrot spears, mashed potatoes, and two cubes of roasted sweet potato.
Potato-wrapped corvina was delicious, the sweet, white, sea basslike flakes of fish alluringly cast in a golden brown crust spiked with garlic, lemon, and olive oil. Pasta dishes were also noteworthy, starting with firm tubes of rigatoni tossed with teeny nuggets of sautéed chicken breast, onions, mushrooms, and peas in a bright, slightly creamy tomato sauce.
A terrific sweet potato purée, accented with nutmeg and allspice, gets wrapped in large, sailor cap-shaped ravioli and plunked in a pool of smooth, sage-flecked cream sauce. And while the one island-influenced entrée, roast pork raviolini covered in black bean sauce, was just fine too, it served mostly to remind me of my dashed plans for dasheen.
Dessert choices are limited: a couple of flavored cheesecakes, a moist square of chocolate cake, and an over-the-top "funk," which is tiramisu layered with Heath bar crunch in a puddle of sweet blueberry sauce. What will those wacky Caribbeans think of next?
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