I always had the unsettling feeling that something was missing in Fountain Square's recent transformation. Oh, I know downtown has become more vibrant than it's been in years, but I still felt there was a dining hole.
Even though yummy options sprouted up at every turn, no locally-based dinner restaurant graced the square. Fortunately, Via Vite stepped up to fill that appalling gap.
The restaurant, little sister to its chic sibling Nicola's Ristorante Italiano in Over-the-Rhine, serves more casual fare, but the creative juices are just the same. Owner Nicola Pietoso and his son Cristian again pair up to give us a restaurant on its way to being the newest jewel in our city's dining crown.
My friend and I went on a Thursday, quickly discovering that the city's roving band of foodies was a step ahead of us. In other words, the place was hopping.
We had some trouble deciding if we wanted to sit in the dining room or the sushi-bar style counter that faced the open kitchen where you could sit and look at "Cristian's beautiful blue eyes," according to my dining companion.
We decided on the dining room and joined a small crowd at the polished granite bar to sip a Peroni ($4.50) and glass of Cortese di Gavi ($10), a crisp Italian white wine, while waiting for our table.
Unfortunately, the confusion at the host stand made it difficult to fully enjoy the contemporary feel of the bar; we kept nervously eyeing the host to make sure we didn't lose our place in line.
Once seated (at a table next to Roxanne Qualls), the effects of the wine and the attention of a sweet, efficient server took the edge off. We began enjoying the clean, post-modern look of the dining room with its glass-tiled walls, wood floor and a breath-taking chandelier of illuminated tree branches. (With all those hard surfaces, I was astounded at how easy it was to hear my friend across our table.)
Via Vite's menu is broken into five main categories, excluding desserts: appetizers and wood-fired pizzas, salads, pastas, entrees and sides. While Nicola's has similar categories and Via Vite's menu does echo Nicola's in the softest of ways — there they have a whisper of truffle oil in the Fingerling Potato Salad ($10) — the overall personality seems more urban-meets-countryside.
Personally, I like a restaurateur who doesn't mimic his first location in his second. I mean, why have two of the same? Then you just have a chain.
We started with the Pizza Napoletana ($13) with sea salt capers, anchovies and mozzarella but asked to substitute mushrooms for the anchovies. As the salty little pickled buds exploded in my mouth, I couldn't imagine the even saltier addition of anchovies and was glad we made the substitution.
My friend noted that the pizza seemed virtually grease-less, indicating a high-grade mozzarella, but we were both left wanting. I prefer a pizza that foregrounds the sauce, and Via Vite's was a little too subtle for me. My friend noted the crust was "not interesting."
We moved on to a wonderful Arugula and Pine Nut Salad ($10) with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, which could have been better only if the pine nuts had been toasted. Then it was on to our entrees: the Rigatoni ($20) with vodka tomato sauce "vecchia Firenze" with a touch of cream (it looked good when it was delivered to Qualls' table), Seared Cod with Grandma's peperonata ($25) and a side of Creamy Polenta with Parmigiano Reggiano ($4).
Our pasta was a little too al dente, but the sauce was perfect, with the nice hint of heat. The polenta was a complete surprise. I put it in the carbohydrate category, but at Via Vite it was a creamy soupy concoction.
I couldn't convince Cristian to divulge the ingredients, but that's OK. Chefs need to have some secrets, and not knowing what it contained didn't stop us from lapping it up.
The cod was dreamy, a word I don't believe I've ever used and certainly not for a fish fated with such a plain, unappealing name. But "appealing" is way too tame for this fish. I'd have to go with mind-blowing.
While my friend craved some starch in the combo — the server did forget to bring our bread basket — I didn't miss it.
For dessert we ordered a trio of gelatos that our server misidentified as coming from Italy. They're actually from our own Madisono's! We chose chocolate, vanilla and grapefruit.
The citrus in the grapefruit woke up our mouths after such a huge meal, but my favorite was the chocolate. It was excellent dipped in our espressos, even though the coffee gods were probably spinning in their graves.
Via Vite might have a kink or two to work out as this latest jewel is cut, but if anybody is up that task it's the Pietoso family.
Go: 520 Vine St., Downtown
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-2 a.m.
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, pasta, pizza, salads
Accessibility: Fully accessible