Last December, I learned that chef Luca Pesci, formerly at the now-closed Boccaccio in Little Italy, had moved to Vito's Cafe in Cockeysville, a pleasant little neighborhood Italian place - if you can call something a neighborhood place when it's in a shopping center.
The owner told me Pesci would overhaul the menu in the spring, and when I talked to Pesci himself, he said until then he would be using the specials to introduce customers to tripe, wild boar, quail, baby octopus, rabbit, heads-on shrimp and suckling pig.
Whoa. For a place known for its pizza and chicken parmigiana, a family restaurant with no liquor license, that sounded wonderfully ambitious.
I'd been wanting to get there to see for myself, but I also wanted to give Pesci a couple of months to put his own stamp on Vito's. The time for a visit came recently when there was a lull in new restaurant openings in general and not much happening on the dining scene in Baltimore County.
Vito's is a nice little spot with a couple of dining rooms, white tablecloths and an open kitchen. It has the feel of Little Italy North - good service, traditional dishes, iceberg lettuce salads, decent bread and olive oil placed on the table when you sit down, and several desserts from Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop.
You have to bring your own wine, of course, and there's a $4 corkage fee that wasn't mentioned. The Cockeysville restaurant doesn't have the prices of a high-end Little Italy restaurant, but you can run up the bill without trying too hard.
The first thing that struck me when I looked at the menu was how old-fashioned the offerings are at Vito's. (That's not necessarily a bad thing, but from my conversation with the chef, I was thinking quail or baby octopus might be one of the specials.) However, there are things to love that I'm sure Pesci is responsible for - like the seafood special the night we were there: clams, mussels, rockfish and shrimp in a delicate tomato broth with crisp toasts for dipping and a scattering of chopped parsley for color. This was an elegantly simple, spectacularly good dish.
Neither of the other specials tempted us. Salmon in a lemon butter sauce and veal tarragon with mozzarella cheese in a brown sauce had a been-there, done-that sound to them. If we were going to eat traditionally, we decided to do it from the menu: veal francese, three delicate scallops of veal with a gold crust and a very lemony sauce. I thought too lemony.
Vito's chicken primavera was about three times as much food as the veal - what seemed to be two boneless chicken breasts covered in a great mound of tomato sauce, broccoli florets and mushrooms. Its looks were off-putting, especially compared to the beautiful seafood medley and the dainty veal francese, but for comfort food, it was very satisfying.
The house lasagna is a step above comfort food. It looks like your usual rectangle of pasta, cheese, meat and tomato sauce, but it tastes something like a cross between traditional lasagna and Greek moussaka. It's an intriguing version. The lasagna and all the pastas come with a house salad, a combination of iceberg, a couple of olives, a raw vegetable or two and a mild, creamy Italian dressing.
Entrees, however, include a side dish of spaghetti only. If you want a salad with your entree, it will cost you $2.95 extra.
As for starters, the antipasto, enough for two, was unusual. Not the ingredients - prosciutto, salami, a couple of ripe slices of honeydew, two artichoke hearts, olives, hard boiled egg quarters - but the presentation. The artichoke hearts were stuck on the melon with toothpicks and topped off with the olives. Once we had disassembled them and put the melon with the prosciutto and the artichoke hearts and olives with the salami, it made more sense.
The best of our appetizers was more Eastern Shore than Italian: mushrooms stuffed with an excellent crab imperial mixture and stuck under the broiler to create a gold-brown crust.
Appetizers are somewhat limited, but not the soups, which include Maryland crab, minestrone, "Swiss" onion and a soup of the day, this day broccoli.
We tried the tortellini in brodo, consisting of lovely little curls of pasta in a broth that could have been a little livelier.
As for dessert, stick to the soft, creamy tiramisu. It's made in house and is worth every luscious calorie. The creme brulee is respectable, but everything else is either from Vaccaro's or is one of the frozen Bindi desserts.
I hadn't eaten at Vito's Cafe before, so I can't say how different the food is now that Pesci has taken over the kitchen. (Yes, the waiter told us, he was in the kitchen the night we ate there.) Some of our dishes were so stylish I think I can safely attribute their finesse to him. Others not so much.
If you're expecting the upscale Boccaccio experience when you eat at Vito's Cafe these days, well, that's not going to happen. But there is some good food to be had there, and you won't have to sell your first-born to get it.
Address: 10249 York Road, Cockeysville
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers: $5.95-$11, entrees: $14.95-$29.95
Contact: 410-666-3100, vitos-cafe.com
Food: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Service: *** ( 3 STARS)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]