Hours: Wed.-Sat. 5-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $8-12; entrées $25-40
Fare: Rarified Italian
Atmosphere: Urban villa
Live. Worship. Shop. So reads the 1950s-era sign welcoming motorists from Ohio River Boulevard into Bellevue, a bedroom community 20 minutes from Downtown. Yet more than the other small towns and suburbs out that way, Bellevue resembles a bustling city neighborhood, with pretty brick streets of 19th-century houses, churches galore and a lively main street, Lincoln Avenue, chockablock with local businesses. Yes, Bellevue does indeed seem to be a fine place to live, worship and shop, but let's get our priorities straight. We were looking for a place to eat.
Enter Vivo (which is what we did). In a region lousy with Italian restaurants, Vivo immediately distinguishes itself from its countless fratelli. Its storefront is highlighted by an ironwork awning decorated with colored-glass orbs, while the interior is like a room from a Tuscan villa, with terra cotta-washed walls, exposed brick piers with frescoed capitals, marble-topped tables and comfortably shabby upholstered armchairs. A wall of black-and-white family photographs adds an intimate, artful touch.
As for Vivo's menu, we never even saw it. That's because, like Homer's Odyssey and Billy the Kid, Vivo's menu is an oral tradition, changing daily according to owner/chef Sam DiBattista's whims and daily Strip District expeditions. (His wife, Lori, is co-owner and pastry chef.) The necessarily brief, but varied, list of entrées consists of meat and fish in updated traditional preparations, while appetizers inventively combine more adventurous ingredients.
Jason chose a mushroom and chorizo starter with at least three different varieties of wild fungus amid tiny whole sausages and a slice of grilled cheese on the side. The entire dish had been grilled and drizzled with olive oil; the overall effect was a study in earthy flavors, savory and smoky if perhaps a bit lacking in brightness and contrast.
Angelique swooned over her appetizer of Swiss chard, slightly wilted and wrapped around a tender filling of herbed faro grains and ricotta cheese. Succulent crabmeat was scattered about the edge of the plate, and tomato jus, a reduction as translucent as broth and as intense as the reddest, ripest, peak-of-summer tomato, touched everything on the plate with its sweetly astringent flavor.
Vivo's entrees are served in traditional Italian style, beginning with a small, simple pasta course, followed by the main dish and, finally, a house salad to finish. The calla lily-shaped campanelli noodles were beautiful in a marinara balanced delicately between sweet and tangy, while the salad of mixed greens in a tart vinaigrette did a delightful job of refreshing our palates. In between, we experienced how far Vivo departs from run-of-the-mill red-sauce restaurants.
Jason's veal chop was a thick, tender cut charred to his specifications. On top were sautéed sweet peppers with garlic, a classic Italian accompaniment that took on the almost fruity character of a chutney alongside the simply grilled meat. Crumbled barrel-aged feta, excellent cheese that was not too briny and offered hints of chevre, surrounded the chop. Vivo boldly paired this with Asian-inspired vegetable sides: bok choy salad with infinitesimally small red pepper bits in a sweet rice wine-vinegar dressing, and wax beans barely blanched and sprinkled simply with salt and toasty black sesame seeds.
Angelique seized the opportunity to order barramundi, a New Zealand fish she'd never had before. The white fish was flaky and soft, even creamy, in texture. It was delectably finished with lemon and crisped onions for a vivid flavor that combined sweet, sour, salty and savory notes in every bite.
Our usual custom is to split a dessert, but here, we each could not resist ordering our own. Flourless chocolate decadence with ganache icing combined the less saccharine character of European cakes with a moist, even fudgy, crumb. Jason's dessert consisted of fresh berries smothered in cannoli filling, sandwiched between two crisp vanilla pizzelles -- a rich foretaste of summer at the end of winter.
One more thing: A silent (at least on paper) partner in our dining expeditions is our toddler daughter. We don't usually mention her, but never has she been treated with more solicitation and care. This care we found applied to every aspect of our visit -- ensuring that, wherever we live, worship or shop, we will surely eat in Bellevue.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 4 stars