- Walter Novak
- O solo meal: Another thing of beauty at Vaccaro's.
You know how it is when a song gets stuck in your head? How it keeps running through your mind -- tantalizing you, teasing you -- until your ears start to ache from straining to recapture the sound? Now imagine that same phenomenon, but this time with food rather than music. That's how it's been for me lately with Vaccaro's veal Bolognese sauce. All rich and creamy, delicate yet deep . . . I simply cannot get the taste of it out of my head. The flavors and mouth-feel keep dancing on my tongue, a sweet gustatory torture, until finally I'm forced to take a swig of coffee or suck on a handful of Altoids, just to get a moment's peace.
Yes, it's that good. And that's not all that's been on my mind about the food at Vaccaro's Trattoria. Intensely seasoned Italian Wedding Soup, a golden chicken broth full of tiny pork and beef meatballs, knots of melting Pecorino Romano cheese, and ribbons of green escarole, is the best in the region, for sure, and just maybe in the entire universe. And thick Sicilian-style Pizza Nostra, its soft crust supporting a fragrant blanket of juicy chopped tomato, virgin olive oil, grated Romano cheese, and fresh basil, took me back three generations, to when my immigrant forebears used to gather 'round tables in Great-Grandma's garage to eat pizza pie, demolish cases of POC, and play endless hands of penny ante.
Sure, cut me and I'll probably bleed marinara, but much of Vaccaro's food, a well-conceived pairing of traditional tastes and contemporary stylings, is simply outstanding. Large portion sizes and easy-on-the-pocket pricing doesn't hurt a bit, either, and makes it easy to forgive small lapses, like a house salad buried beneath a tart balsamic vinaigrette or the potentially fabulous lobster risotto that tasted as if someone had dropped the salt shaker into it.
A fellow paisano and I bemoaned the panne fritte, otherwise lovely lengths of sweet fried dough adulterated with drizzles of sticky syrups. Next time, we'll ask the kitchen just to sprinkle the dough with sugar, like our mamas used to do, and serve the syrups, if they must, on the side. But creamy, crunchy homemade ricotta-and-Ghirardelli-chocolate-stuffed cannoli were wonderful, and fresh gelato, in flavors like mocha, rum raisin, and mint, were out of sight. We finished off one night's feast with the Au Fougato, a scoop of mocha gelato floating, briefly, in a mug of hot, dense espresso, and thought we had died and gone to heaven.
Despite the white tablecloths and napkins, and the soundtrack of cool jazz, owner and Executive Chef Raphael Vaccaro's dining room is basically informal. The trattoria, which opened in 1995, sits at the end of a tidy little professional office plaza just off Interstate 77, and its interior is neatly done up in a soothing shade of celadon, set off with dark floral wall-covering, wide crown molding, and handsome built-in cabinetry displaying a wine collection and objets d'art. Plenty of large windows admit the daylight and keep the two small dining rooms from feeling too cramped; unfortunately, the view is of nothing more glamorous than the highway's on- and off-ramps. Friendly black-garbed servers in long white aprons dodge the tables to deliver baskets of steaming hot, garlic-buttered rolls and platters heaped with food, and then take the time to graciously grate mountains of mellow Parmesan onto your pasta. However, do not expect them to crumb your table, replenish your flatware with each course, or light your glass-shaded votive candle come twilight. Other informalities include coffee refills poured straight out of the brewpot and cream tossed onto the table in those little plastic tubs.
The highly visible Vaccaro trots around the dining room as if it were an extension of his own home, fetching cocktails, suggesting wines from the trattoria's mostly Italian collection, and pulling up a chair to sit and chat at tables filled with regular customers. Left to our own devices, we would undoubtedly become regulars ourselves in order to savor more of that firm ricotta-and-mozzarella-packed lasagna; the buttery pancetta-topped pan-seared grouper; and the tender chicken breast (Pollo Ripieno) stuffed with herbed chèvre, fresh spinach, and sun-dried tomato, and served on a bed of zippy chipotle linguine in sauce béchamel, bejeweled with black olives and bits of ripe red tomato.
While the aforementioned balsamic-drenched house salad was a disappointment, two specialty salads performed flavorful little pirouettes on our palates. The first, the Sicilian Citrus Salad, was a pas de deux of the sweet and salty, with mixed greens, pink grapefruit slices, and orange sections played against slices of creamy fresh mozzarella, quartered marinated artichoke hearts, strips of roasted red pepper, and an assortment of cured olives. The other, Goat Cheese and Berries, was, if possible, even more pleasurable, with delicate baby field greens topped with crumbs of lush, earthy chèvre; fat blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries; and toasted walnuts. (The pear, mentioned on the menu, seemed to be missing in action.) Both salads were served with side portions of fruity raspberry vinaigrette and the thick balsamic vinaigrette; judiciously dabbed on in just the right proportion, they brought out the best in the sweet-savory salads.
Other notable tidbits included an appetizer of three long, slender banana peppers -- assertive natural beauties with a deliciously mean streak of capsaicin -- stuffed with sausage, veal, Asiago cheese, and Roma tomato, and bedded down on a layer of thick, comforting house marinara; and the kitchen's soup of the day, an arousing roasted red-pepper bisque, its intrinsic sweetness cleverly tweaked with essence of lime.
As for that unforgettable veal Bolognese sauce -- a family recipe that Vaccaro re-creates with assistance from Chef Mickey DeAngelo -- it's available on a fantastic-sounding Lasagna al Carne along with sopressata, veal meatballs, and ground beef; or from the "mix-and-match" listing of pastas, sauces, and go-withs, where we combined it with penne and a generous length of fragrant fennel sausage. Although the pasta was a moment past al dente, the lavish tomato-enriched sauce of heavy cream, shallots, onion, and garlic, studded with little chunks of tender ground veal and pork, was compensation enough and, in fact, brought us perilously close to the point of licking our plate.
We know Cousin Raphael wants us to feel at home. But that might have been a bit too much.