Neo Viccino is the old Viccino Bistro's solution to the problem most of the restaurants in the Mount Vernon cultural district face: How do you fill the tables when the theaters and concert halls are dark?
In spite of its funky location and bistro label, Viccino's was basically a fine-dining, traditionally Italian restaurant when it opened a decade ago. The chef was Christopher Cherry, who had worked at Tabrizi's and the Polo Grill. The food changed somewhat over the years, but it was still a bistro in name only.
Now, after substantial renovations, Neo Viccino has opened with a new, contemporary look; a new, casual menu; and a new label: Bar & Grille, which is no more an accurate description of the place than bistro was.
That sounds a little harsh, but I actually mean it as a compliment. The business of eating is still more important than the business of drinking. The new lounge furniture in front is separated from the bar in back by the clean-lined, minimalist dining area: pale wood tables, booths in black leather and seating for 65. The room is long and narrow, with a low ceiling; but shiny new hardwood floors, white walls and small photographs for art create the illusion that there is more space than there really is.
The food is geared now to neighborhood folks and University of Baltimore students, but it's still not bar and grill food. True, pastas, pizzas, salads and sandwiches dominate the menu. But there are entrees that work just fine for more serious meals, such as the duck breast with ginger plum sauce. Their prices are lower than they were because portions are smaller. Nothing on the new menu costs more than $20, which is pretty impressive when you consider that it includes lamb chops, sirloin steak and sushi grade tuna. And two side dishes come with each dinner.
Instead of bar food like wings and crab dip, the kitchen places a lump of crab the size of the Hope diamond and a slice of ripe avocado on each of three crostini, with an aioli made with lime and a jolt of chipotle pepper.
Little purses are another detour from bar food. Fashioned out of puff pastry, they are full of soft, smoky gouda, a little caramelized onion and sun-dried tomato. The kitchen edges them with a roasted red pepper sauce, which adds a sharp counterpoint.
The sun-dried tomatoes work in the beggars purses, but, with the fried green tomatoes, they are only a distraction from the main business at hand, which is to consume the firm green rounds with their crunchy coating with as much of the smooth aioli as possible.
Order the fresh-dough Pizza Viccino, and you get one of those kitchen-sink concoctions that actually manages a harmonious balance of crust, grilled chicken, spinach, onion, tomato, feta, mozzarella, and ricotta. There are so many elements that each bite tastes a little different, but that's part of its charm.
Pasta primavera is perfectly respectable but doesn't deliver the small surprises of the pizza. It's simply vegetables tossed with penne and a pink cream sauce, which tastes fine but isn't as visually appealing as some of the food.
If you are lucky, the special will be fillet of grouper, firm and white, its almost sweet taste set off by the lime-scallion butter. It lies on a bed of wilted spinach and frisee, and crisp little shoestring potatoes curl invitingly around the main event.
Flavorful, fork-cuttable chunks of pork tenderloin are sauteed with meaty portobello mushrooms. The faint sweetness of the dark balsamic vinegar sauce brings out the best in the pork. It's not a lot of meat, but it's more than enough food with two sides, which could be -- among others -- couscous, grilled vegetables, steamed broccoli or a fine, fresh health slaw made without mayonnaise.
The old Viccino's signature dessert, banana cannelloni, is still on the menu. It's more Asian than Italian, with the banana nestled in a spring roll wrapper and deep-fried. The result is a crisp, flaky skin and hot, soft fruit, a nice contrast to the ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Neo Viccino also has a berry tart with pastry cream and a thick cookie crust, but my favorite is the triple chocolate truffle cake, for once not overwhelmingly chocolately, but balanced between chocolate and yellow cake, chocolate and white chocolate mousse. It was wonderfully fresh and had that virtue of a great after-dinner dessert: It seemed light, even though you knew it wasn't.
If you liked the food when it was Viccino's Bistro and don't demand huge portions, you'll like the food now that it's Neo Viccino. (What's not to like, when prices are actually lower?) And if you weren't eating there before because it didn't have enough style, check out the clean-lined contemporary renovation.
NEO VICCINO BAR & GRILLE
Address: 1317 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
FOOD *** (3 STARS)
SERVICE *** (3 STARS)
ATMOSPHERE *** (3 STARS)
RATINGS: Outstanding: ****: Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
ASK THE CRITIC Have a question about dining out in the Baltimore area? Ask Elizabeth Large, The Sun's restaurant critic. E-mail questions to email@example.com, or mail to Elizabeth Large, The Sun, Features, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278. Answers to selected questions will appear in Modern Life.