It's six o'clock, and outside, a sharp November sleet cuts through the gathering darkness.
Inside, the Young Turks in their black suits are congregating around the bar, talking loud, laughing louder, and drinking their martinis, up, with a twist. Every few minutes, one steps away from the others, flips open a cell phone and places a call--to his wife? girlfriend?--all the while staring out the windows onto East Sixth Street, watching the rain streak by.
It's a Tuesday night at Vico, a sleek little restaurant with a large sense of style--the kind of place Cleveland's white-collar types go to unwind after a day of driving hard bargains.
The name is Italian for "crooked street" or "alley," says general manager Tricia Stamp. And situated on this twisted little piece of Sixth, between Euclid and Superior, Vico seems aptly named.
Owner John Del Busso opened the place on September 9. It's his second restaurant--Portofino Ristorante in Strongsville is his first operation--and both spots demonstrate his devotion to upscale Italian food, attentively prepared.
But Vico's chef, Mike Turcola, has put his own mark on the restaurant. He has had free rein in designing the small, modestly priced menu, and he and his staff make almost everything fresh, from scratch, even going so far as to grate gnarly horseradish roots once a week for piquant garnishes.
On this rainy evening, Stamp is doing double duty as a waitress. Razor-thin, she slices through the room in her slim black skirt and camel sweater, an outfit artfully chosen to match the restaurant's black-and-taupe decor. All the servers wear those colors, almost as if they were part of Vico's ornamentation.
We begin with a bowl of today's soup selection, Pasta e Fagioli--pieces of firm penne pasta and tender red kidney beans in a rich tomato broth, scented with oregano and Parmesan cheese.
"Just like Mama would have made, if Mama was Italian," declares one of my companions. It is delicious, but I had been hoping to score another bowl of Turcola's Cream of Wild Mushroom soup. I loved it during a previous visit, with its chunks of porcini, portobello, and do-mestic mushrooms floating in a slightly thickened, cream-finished chicken stock, and wanted to share its delights with my dinner companions.
Alas, it isn't on the menu; Turcola limits himself to one soup creation each day. Instead, we have to satisfy ourselves with one of his Port Jonah's crab cakes. Fortunately, that's not difficult to do.
The substantial patty is composed of sweet crabmeat chunks--half body-meat and half claw--and flecks of red pepper, bound together in a mild bechamel, and sauteed to a golden brown. Atop the cake is a tangle of thin-sliced, sauteed onions. The salty threads are so translucently crisp that they shatter, like spun glass, when we bite into them. The crab cake rests on a sizable mound of mixed greens, accented with triangular Belgian endive leaves and dressed in a thick, rather sweet and tangy orange-and-mustard vinaigrette; the greens make a fine salad, once the crab cake is gone. At nine dollars for the single cake, it is an expensive treat. But, firm-textured and nutty, it is also the best example of its species we have found in Cleveland.
However, we are a little disappointed with an entree of penne pasta with roasted vegetables. Instead of the peppers, onions, and eggplant mentioned on the menu, this is pasta tossed with large chunks of yellow squash and zucchini. (The eggplant at market wasn't good that day, Turcola says later, and he had to make do without.) The vegetables are very lightly roasted so they keep their shape and texture, but they are bland in their mild tomato-basil sauce.
Farfalle, or bow-tie pasta, loaded with chunks of sauteed Atlantic salmon, leeks, and mushrooms in a rosy-hued cream sauce, is more flavorful. Turcola says the tasty sauce is "95 percent" plum tomatoes, seasoned with cognac and finished with cream. But all it takes is one unwelcome needle of salmon bone to make our diner push the rest of the fish to one side of her plate.
Perhaps the best of the pasta dishes is slender corkscrew fusilli, cooked to a flawless al dente, garnished with strips of lean, salty pancetta and sauteed onions, and served in a tomato-vodka-and-cream sauce. The savory bacon and onions set off the vaguely sweet, buttery sauce in an extremely pleasant fashion. Robust, comforting but still sophisticated, the dish seems destined to find a spot on my list of favorite things.
Of course, not everyone is crazy about pasta. Our meat-eaters choose Chicken a la Romano--three big medallions of tender breast meat coated with sharp Romano cheese, garlic, parsley, and bread crumbs, and pan-sauteed--and the Sirloin Steak Sandwich--a tenderized, grilled New York strip steak painted with Dijon mustard and dipped in that pungent horseradish and rosemary-parsley-and-sage-scented bread crumbs. The steak is mounded with sweet, caramelized red-onion rings and served, open-face, on sourdough bread.
With its zesty combination of juicy grilled meat and tingly herbed horseradish, the steak sandwich is a winner. And the chicken filets--with a crunchy, garlic-scented crust and a moist interior--are a step beyond ordinary. We also enjoy the large helpings of buttery, mashed red-skinned potatoes that accompany the meals.
By now, it's seven o'clock and the men in the black suits are loosening their ties and putting their heads together for some serious man-to-man talk. Their laughter is no longer so loud, and we can sometimes catch a few notes of Lisa Loeb floating through the pauses in their rumbling conversations.
For dessert, we agree to share sorbet, tiramisu, and apple pie with ice cream. Except that she who has the pie doesn't want to share. After I finagle a few forkfuls, I understand her reluctance: With its flaky crust, wedges of sweet-and-saucy baked apples, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the pie is just too delicious to give away.
The night's sorbet choices, from Strongsville manufacturer County Parlor, include raspberry, boysenberry, cantaloupe, and lemon ice. We pick one scoop of raspberry and one of lemon ice. They are intensely flavorful, and the ruby-red raspberry sorbet adds just the right amount of sweetness to the tart lemon ice.
Likewise, the large square of Turcola's tiramisu is very good. Made with ladyfingers soaked in espresso, then layered with sweetened, whipped mascarpone cheese and dusted with cocoa, the dessert is prettily garnished with a puff of whipped cream, a strawberry, and a fresh mint leaf, and rests on a drizzle of sweet chocolate sauce. It is rich without being cloying and makes a fine ending to a meal.
Seven-thirty, and the men in the black suits have broken rank and are making a slow trek toward the exit. For a few moments, they stand in the doorway, shaking hands, belting their dusky overcoats, and lifting their collars against the cold. We follow them out to the sidewalk, and we scatter like so many leaves in the wind.
1852 East Sixth Street, Cleveland. 216-622-1804. Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; bar remains open later. Carryout menu available.
Soup of the Day $3
Lump Crab Cake $9
Sirloin Steak Sandwich $9
Farfalle with Salmon $10
Fusilli with Pancetta $8
Chicken a la Romano $11