Cliff hanger

It occurred to me, as I walked into Vitto's, that the last time I reviewed a restaurant in Oak Cliff, it was at this same address. Maybe not. But it's certainly true that off the top of my head, I can name four or five restaurants that have held this lease. This is the one that should stick.

The old strip center at the corner of Bishop and Seventh is one of the most charming business buildings in Oak Cliff. Isolated, of course. That's how charm comes in Oak Cliff, though I don't want to seem biased against the south side of town. Tillman's, the granddaddy of Oak Cliff dining (that's not to say "eating," but "dining," a different thing) is here, and that's a young grandfather, indeed. The corner now occupied by Vitto's, a location that has always seemed appealing, has shown a revolving door to its wannabe tenants.

Right now, it's a pizza-pasta concept with nothing really new about it except that it's in Oak Cliff. It's hip, cheap, and good--well, it's not that common to find two out of three anywhere. But never in Oak Cliff, though, as I said, I don't want to knock Oak Cliff.

Vitto's has gone for a clean, if not entirely successful snazzy look, involving Euro-style hardwood chairs, vivid yellow walls, and weird paintings of anthropomorphosed vegetables. It's not high design, or even very original design, but neither is this the fatiguing quaintness new businesses in Oak Cliff seem to automatically substitute for the tackiness they inherit from the old ones. This place would fit right in, say, Preston Royal Shopping Center, and no one would blink. But in Oak Cliff, where windows tend to feature either lace curtains or bars, the clean, uncovered windows at Vitto's are an anomaly and indicative of the North Dallas chic this restaurant emulates.

Cliffies tend to be defensive about their neighborhood, mostly because North Dallasites can't find a compelling reason to drive south to go to dinner in some place next to a transmission shop or discount shoe store, a place where they'll probably have to buy a Unicard just to get a glass of beer to go with what usually turns out to be Mexican food. All I can say is, although Oak Cliff has the best geography in the Metroplex, it's not just a warped North Dallas perception that there's no place to eat there. I can hardly mention a restaurant in Oak Cliff that isn't outdone someplace in North Dallas. I'm not gloating about this, I'm not happy about this, I'm just stating the facts. Most of the appeal of Oak Cliff restaurants that achieve crosstown popularity lies simply in the zest of their location--it's a trip to go to Oak Cliff. How adventurous. How colorful.

Vitto's, though sans quaintness, just might be worth a drive. It's not--as you would expect from those yellow walls and weird paintings--your typical mom-and-pop pasta and pizza menu, but something a little more stylish. The owner, Mark Serano, owes some of his ideas to past experiences, including a stint at Sfuzzi's.

Pizza, for instance, the house specialty, is a remarkable pie, with a beautifully brown and well-rounded bread crust, the dough flecked with herbs, sturdy enough to hold its topping. Vitto's sells its pizza whole, with "traditional" toppings like pepperoni, sausage, beef, olives, pineapple, garlic, zucchini, barbecued chicken, artichoke hearts, and sun-dried tomatoes, among other things (though the menu prudently refuses to pile on more than eight per pie). You can also order "traditional" pizza by the enormous slice--our friendly waiter firmly recommended no more than one per customer. (They really watch out for you here.) The pie isn't great by world-class pizza standards, but it's better than the production-line stuff that's usually delivered to our doors.

More interesting are the "different" pizzas, so-called to avoid that objectionable word "gourmet" that, in backlash fashion, has become an eye-rolling cue when it applies to pizza. "Different" pizzas include the same old "white" pizza offered at a number of chains: alfredo sauce, grilled chicken and zucchini, as well as several kinds of chicken pizza: teriyaki, grilled, and barbecued. The vegetarian was the prettiest pie, with bright broccoli florets, zucchini rounds, and sliced tomatoes over the rather lackluster red sauce, but it's the remarkable spinach-bacon pizza that gets my vote for best pizza in Dallas. Brushed with garlic butter and topped with leaves of fresh spinach, the slices of sweet cherry tomato precisely the same thinness and translucence as the slices of salty and crisped pepperoni, and crumbles of smoky bacon, made this cheeseless pie exciting to eat: It really was different; and delicious.

The other difference was the price: Vitto's pizzas are $1.50 a slice, $7 for a 12-inch traditional pie, $10 for the same size "different" one. And the rest of the menu is equally, well, cheap.

The menu looks like many others: pizza, pasta, salads, and a few appetizers. But we ordered the chicken pesto roll, a sheet of pasta, jelly-rolled around a basil filling, the resulting coil resting on a bowlful of sauced cappellini and topped with strips of grilled chicken breast--for five bucks? At dinner? And the big ravioli, stuffed with cheese and spinach, bathed in a barely reduced cream--for five bucks? Nearly all the pasta entrees here were the same low price and you could add a Caesar salad for pennies more. Our waiter said prices would probably go up after the first few months, but not by much, though you wonder how the place is even covering its food costs, much less making any money. Not everything was as tasty as the pesto roll and pizza--the manicotti came boiling to the table, an unappetizing sauce and cheese au gratin. The pasta had fried to the bottom of the dish and the top looked like a natural attraction at Yellowstone. (This is a common mistake with manicotti, which is a fragile dish, really, meant to be treated and heated nonviolently, coddled and cooked with tenderness so the noodles don't harden and the cheese doesn't turn against itself.)

To start, we had bruschetta, slices of bread topped with chopped tomatoes, pesto, and parmesan ($2.50).

Wine is available by the glass or carafe--red, white, or pink. When we asked what kind, our waiter said, "Drinkable," which sounds impertinent but turned out to be an honest answer. It was no better or worse than that.

In general, service was friendly and efficient. I was the slow one; it takes more time to read a menu, trying to find a restaurant's personality, than looking for something to eat. Our waiter was patient, even though we lingered over our plain cheesecake (purchased, not made by the restaurant, but good) till nearly everyone else had left.

At lunch, the place was about half full, as it had been for dinner, with the usual parade of Oak Cliff humanity. My companion, an ex-Cliffie, said the customers looked like a cross section of his old neighborhood: There were old people, families with young children, Hispanics, Anglos, hipsters, and us. A few days later, when we tried to call in a pizza for pickup (Vitto's delivers, but not in my neighborhood), it took 20 minutes to get past the busy signal just to place the order. So it looks like Vitto's is already a hit. All it has to do now is survive its own success.

(Of course, if Vitto's doesn't make it in Oak Cliff, it can always raise its prices and move to Preston Center.)

Vitto's, 316 W. Seventh at Bishop, 946-1212. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.


Bruschetta: $2.50
Caesar Salad $2.75
Spinach and Cheese Ravioli $5
Chicken Pesto Roll $5
Slice of Plain Cheese Pizza $1.50


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