Cheap vittles

Vitto doesn't hit the high notes, but it still hums

Servers possess a sort of innocence when it's clear they're not in love with the profession, but are shoveling grub and sloshing grog at diners as a means to something else.

This was one week where that innocence was on display. On our initial visit to Vitto, the Oak Lawn extension to the 2-year-old Oak Cliff Italian restaurant, we agonized over our appetizer selection. We thought we might like to try the bruschetta. But our server informed us the regular chef was off that night, hinting that the evening's rendition would most likely suck.

This kind of candor is not only humorously disconcerting, it's refreshing. And it seems to fit in with Vitto's stylish retro-tech decor with floor-to-ceiling windows, glass block accents, matte black tables, corrugated aluminum trim in the bar, and wood chairs stained in red, yellow, blue, and purple. On the walls hang colorful abstract paintings of dining scenes that ground the place just enough to quench any fears of an impending lava-lamp invasion.

Location Info

Map

Vitto Italian

316 W. 7th St.
Dallas, TX 75208

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Oak Cliff & South Dallas

So we jumped on this terse honesty and ordered the breaded artichokes. I can't imagine that the bruschetta would have been worse. These beasts, coated with breadcrumbs, were mushy and asphyxiated in a garlic-butter lake. And to think Bless Your Heart, a health-food restaurant, used to occupy this space before its untimely death.

On a second visit, we decided to try the bruschetta, and the same server told us we were on safe ground as the regular chef was in command. But the toasted, airy bread with a thick bead of pesto and a specking of diced tomato was swamped by a smothering blanket of melted mozzarella that transformed the delicate crispness into a gooey wad.

Vitto is essentially a slalom through culinary troughs and peaks, with highs that never soar and lows that never send you to the bathroom. Yet the menu is so cheap and the digs so comfortable in a cozy-neighborhood way that you don't really mind the rough ride.

Vitto's bread is perhaps a metaphor for this place: stylish little knots of toasted pizza dough pummeled with garlic, parsley, and oregano, and then left to fend for themselves in a puddle of olive oil. The stuff is freshly satisfying--even if it's forced to struggle in an oil spill.

Though rustling with crisp romaine, the Caesar salad is coated in a thick, creamy dressing and shreds of mozzarella that put it into culinary slo-mo. Much better was the house salad: a mix of head and romaine lettuces, julienne carrot, tomato, and a simple, vibrant dressing rendered from oil and balsamic vinegar seasoned with lemon, garlic, parsley, oregano, basil, and a hint of sugar.

But Vitto's chef salad hunkered in the troughs, with chunks of desiccated chicken hovering in lettuce shreds, julienne carrot, red and green bell pepper, artichokes, sliced green olives, and black olives that tasted like deodorant soap.

Many of Vitto's sauces are soupy--yet some hum with vibrancy. The baked lasagna came swimming in fresh marinara with a good, rich flavor, even if it was thin. But you couldn't find a flat, ruffled noodle to save your life. It seemed to have just one noodle layer with mealy ground beef and mushrooms that tasted canned. Still, it was satisfying, and at six bucks it's a crime to complain.

Ricotta-stuffed ravioli, however, came in a watery tomato sauce that lacked richness. This very pedestrian assemblage with a thick thread of pesto over the top wasn't displeasing, just ho-hum. The Vitto salmon plate with pan-seared fish had a nice paper-thin crust, a moist flaky texture, and rich flavor--all for $10. But the plate came moistened with a cream sauce that, when mated with a side of overcooked angel hair pasta, exhibited the flavor robustness of papier-mache. Sauteed zucchini, yellow squash, broccoli, mushrooms, and red and green bell peppers were cooked to a perfect fresh, crunchy doneness, but they were smothered in oil with fiercely off flavors.

Billed as one of Vitto's specialties, the Italian sausage and peppers were a bit too tepid. With slices of bland Italian sausage (the menu says mild, and they aren't kidding) and lots of sliced green and red bell pepper over spaghetti, the creation was slathered in a watery, almost flavorless sauce--even though it was dubbed "spicy marinara" on the menu.

Chocolate layer cake was a big surprise. This moist, dense cake topped with whipped cream was richly flavorful with creamy, buttery frosting void of sugar grit--it tasted homemade.

Vitto is one of those odd combinations of underwhelming food that holds its own coupled with friendly staff (except for a curt chef); good, crisp ambiance; and prices that are hard to beat. It's a comfortable way to ease hunger pangs without weeping great gusts of garlic breath when the check arrives. I'd return--with caution.

Dallas by no means has a lock on server honesty. D'Armond's, a clumsy stab at fine dining way up in McKinney, also has its share of brutally candid staff members. Interestingly, this episode of server honesty involved an entree called "oops ostrich," although it isn't clear if it's named after a daffy bird or a kitchen mistake.

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