In the mood for love? I've got the place for you and the object of your affection: Vito's Café, in Fort Thomas, Ky., found in the pleasant dining space occupied recently by Chez Alphonse. Their Italian cuisine is excellent, but the restaurant you'll likely recall is Vito's spiritual ancestor, Forest View Gardens.
That longtime northwestern Cincinnati eatery featured singing servers, typically students at UC's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). In fact, Vito's owner, Victor Cipiel, studied at CCM and sang at Forest View before heading to New York City in the 1970s to work in the music and restaurant businesses.
Ciepiel and his wife, Mary, returned to the area last fall in search of an ideal location for the musical dining experience. Their inspiration was Forest View, but rather than abbreviated revues from one musical, Vito's offers incidental music performed continuously. Some numbers are pay-attention operatic arias and duets; others are sweet love songs from musicals. In between, the adept accompanist, Jan Conrad (formerly music director at Forest View), provides piano renditions of more show tunes.
The scene Vito's Café did more than a cosmetic make-over of Chez Alphonse.
The two dining rooms are separated by a wall with an opening that sports a small raised stage with a grand piano. The rooms have a warm, almost florid, ambience: deep red walls, draped velour curtains, spotlighted floral paintings, gilt-framed mirrors, and tasteful chandeliers.
There's a sufficient sound system, and the singers don't bowl over diners. Although the décor appears formal with lots of four-top tables and white cloths, the ambience is relaxed: Servers wear black T-shirts with a tasteful "Vito's" logo. It's a bit startling when the young woman with her hair in pigtails who just described the finer points of the Wheel of Parmigiana (a fettucine Alfredo prepared tableside for two in an immense round of cheese, $25) is suddenly singing an aria from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. These are young talents on their way somewhere: A few veterans, plus many students from CCM and nearby Northern Kentucky University. One young server told us he was leaving soon for an engagement with the Chicago Lyric Opera.
On a Friday evening, diners were casually dressed and relaxed. Nevertheless, each singer had an audience. (When a powerful baritone sang "Old Man River" from Showboat, there wasn't much choice.) But it still easy to carry on a conversation.
Mostly the tunes tend toward the romantic and schmaltzy: "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line, lots of numbers from Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story and Man of La Mancha. There are plentiful helpings of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, and older works like Cole Porter's "Wunderbar" from Kiss Me, Kate. Just when you think it's too syrupy, there's a great dramatic number like "As If I Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard.
The scoop You won't leave Vito's hungry. We started with the Hot Antipasto appetizer for four (shrimp, mussels, clams, sautéed eggplant and artichoke hearts, $15). The chef clearly likes garlic a bit too much for me, but we managed to clean the platter. A house salad (priced separately at $3) comes with each entrée; all dressings are made in house. We also enjoyed Caprese ($5, or a $2 surcharge on the entrée price), a delicious treatment of ripe tomatoes, bufala mozzarella and basil.
Seven pasta entrées (all priced at $14) offer plenty of choice. We tried Spaghetti Carbonara al Pavarotti, a perfect blend of pancetta, prosciutto, eggs, cream and peas. The flavors were balanced, and it wasn't too salty. Our one disappointment was Pappardelle con Funghi, made with porcini mushrooms and a light veal stock over flat, ribbonlike pasta: It's an unusual dish that could well be an acquired taste, but its pasta seemed too gummy. When our server finished singing, she whisked it away with no questions asked, replacing it with a quick order of spaghetti and meatballs.
We enjoyed two other entrées: Seafood Diavolo (linguine with big shrimp, mussels, clams and some perfect calamari in a spicy marina sauce, $16) again reflected the kitchen's fascination with garlic. The Veal Scallopine Piccata ($19) has a buttery sauce with tart lemon and capers over fettucine. It was the best entrée we ordered.
Desserts ($5 each) are worth the calories: We had a Tartufo (made exclusively for Vito's with Graeter's vanilla ice cream in a chocolate shell) and a delicate Tiramisu, served in a martini glass.
The sizzle If you're looking for a truly romantic evening, a table in the rear room is recommended. (Our table in the front room kept catching a draft from the door on a chilly evening.) And keep your distance from the piano: You can hear from further back, and you won't have to stop your sweet nothings every time someone sings.
Go: 654 Highland Ave., Fort Thomas
Hours: Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Several pastas without meat; several chicken entrées; Seafood Diavolo