“Contemporary American” restaurants typically sit in a gray area, ping-ponging between traditional and trendy with no surprises and little innovation.
And while Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley identifies itself as “contemporary American,” the restaurant offers many surprises.
Dishes seem to be created with no culinary map in mind, delivering a medley of ideas. But traveling the menu, plates range from expected to inspired. Entrees explode with taste and desserts sing delicious songs. Vivo Kitchen boomerangs all over the place and returns with bright, simplistic dishes that carry comforting flavor.
Entering its 19th year of service, Vivo Kitchen has been a key part of Sewickley’s dining scene since 2011, after moving from its original location in Bellevue. Head chef/owner Sam DiBattista managed to maintain momentum through the decades, delighting with an accessible, straightforward menu.
Vivo is almost hidden amongst businesses on Sewickley’s main drag. An unmarked, grandiose iron gate leads to the entrance. The walkway passes through the patio, a raging fire luring frigid diners with the promise of warmth.
The dining room is snug. Tall windows look toward the courtyard, teasing the possibility of summer days. Exposed spherical lights hang in straight lines from the ceiling, barely adding visibility to the dark room. The front is illuminated with an eccentric, bundle-of-grapes-looking chandelier. Walls are sparse, hosting a few pieces of art made from sliced book bindings.
DiBattista divides his menu into two groups: small plates and main dishes. It was an intimidating list I eventually narrowed down to three selections: charred shishito peppers, duck breast skewers, and Australian lamb chops.
My server expertly staggered the courses. First out were the peppers, an unexciting wooden plate piled with charred shishitos and dusted with salt. It worked only with the right bite of salt, blackened pepper, and oil.
Duck breast skewers followed, two thin strips of duck lightly covered with curry. This dish, a complete 180 from the peppers, released an irresistible bouquet of cinnamon and cumin. The winter-spiced curry matched well with the earthy duck breast.
My main course, lamb chops, were cooked a true medium rare, cutting like butter. Each chop was covered with a char crust, the bitter balance to a house-made pomegranate molasses. Seasonal sides, broccolini and radicchio, balanced the down-to-earth lamb. Nothing was over-seasoned. Flavors danced around each other, for a polished, robust plate.
At every step of my meal, Vivo Kitchen kept getting better. I finished with a salted caramel cheesecake. By itself, the cheesecake was thick, creamy, and slightly sour, topped with a deep brown caramel. Sea salt studded the top, relieving the bitterness and allowing sugar to meet the sharp topping.
Though I’m still unsure of how to correctly categorize Vivo Kitchen — contemporary American seems unfitting — it’s clear the restaurant knows how to keep diners interested. And it seems to only be getting better with age.
1. Pinup Poster
Vivo’s interesting decor is not limited to the dining room. A pinup poster sits nonchalantly in the bathroom, the room’s only wall decoration. Somehow, it works.
2. Paint Tray Olive Oil
Like many restaurants, Vivo serves bread and olive oil after diners order. But they serve the olive oil in a graded dish, like a mini version of paint-roller trays or steps into a wading pool.
3. Eight-Ounce Pours
Wine is no joking matter. Instead of a standard five-ounce pour, wine drinkers at Vivo Kitchen are treated to three extra ounces.