Vesuvio erupts!

Well it’s officially here—Vesuvio Bistro Italiano has opened up shop in Carmel. Check out my review on Yelp here. But want something truly off the menu? I present my unedited review. (Curse you, Yelp, and your 5,000 character count limit!)

When it comes to the dining scene here on the Monterey Peninsula, I’m about to write something that I’m sure isn’t going to get me any fans. There is a dearth of good Italian food in our culinary bubble. Yes, I said it. Despite a plethora of Italian restaurants in our area, few offer up anything unique. It’s always the same story everywhere you go—overpriced pastas, basic meat dishes and for a little variety, an assortment of pizzas (shocker!). Needless to say, I was dying to see what was in store at the corner of Junipero and Sixth when Piatti closed last year. Word came of Vesuvio—a new Italian restaurant, pizzeria and trattoria from the brains behind Little Napoli and Peppoli. I was excited at the prospect—a restaurant with a refined take on Italy’s Mediterranean classics. Dare we dream, a good Italian restaurant finally in our sights?

Vesuvio opened last night, and while I wasn’t able to make it opening night, but I did pop in for dinner tonight. First things first—no, there wasn’t a giant volcano spewing lava inside the restaurant. Bummer—with a name like Vesuvio, I was just dying for an erupting volcano as the centerpiece for this new restaurant! Oh well, I guess they wanted something a little classier. Psshh!

We got there around 6:15 and had our choice of tables in the dining room or the lounge. We opted for the lounge—it was more secluded and more relaxed. We took a few minutes to pore over the diverse (though large, cumbersome and bulky) menu, which has an assortment of Italian cuisine: appetizers for about $10 to $12, soups and salads for $7 to $8, pastas for about $20 and seafood and entrees for $25 to $30.

Some foccacia with crispy cheese and onion on top? Don't mind if I do?

My friend and I finally settled on some small bites and a pizza. We started with the arancini (4 for $9), the spicy crab cakes (3 for $12) and the mozzarella “burrata” ($12).

I was thrilled to see arancini on the menu—it’s so rare to find these delicious risotto fritters on menus in these parts, and they’re on of my all-time favorite foods. Sadly, one bite in and my heart sank—the rice was overcooked and mushy and the arancini weren’t really all that hot when they arrived. What a disappointment!

Alas, the arancini were a bit of a letdown.

The crab cakes similarly weren’t all that impressive. Sure, I appreciated the little kick of spice in the crab mix, but these crab cakes were packed with chunks of raw onion—way too much for my tastes. Plus, they were fried—I much prefer a quick browning in a skillet over deep-frying for my crab cakes.

Crab cakes weren't so hot either.

The mozzarella burrata was a rather perplexing dish. When it arrived, it looked beautiful, dressed with some balsamic and four slices of tomato. The mozzarella was a little watery and not the best I’ve had around town, but it wasn’t terrible. But the dish just felt a little weird. Then it hit us—where was the crostini? Everywhere else, mozzarella/burrata comes with crostini to “plate” the cheese. By our powers of deduction, apparently we realized that was the purpose of the tomato. An odd choice, honestly. Maybe they were going for a deconstructed caprese? I would have been forgiving of this presentation if the tomato hadn’t been cut so thick and maybe if it actually tasted good. (It’s a little early for good tomatoes, and these were hard as rocks and not very flavorful.)

A definite strike-out on the apps, finished up with the mozzarella alla burrata.

After our disappointing appetizers, I was a little apprehensive about what was in store for us with the pizza. What a relief! The pizza fared better than the appetizers. We ordered the spicy sausage and peppers pizza ($16) on the recommendation of our server. The sausage was a nice blend of sweet and spicy, with a good kick paired against sweet herbs. It was a bit smoky for my tastes, but pretty good. The peppers could have been cooked a little longer to male them softer, but that’s a personal preference. They went nicely with the spicy sausage. The crust was nice and thin, just how I like it, but it was a tad too charred for my tastes.

Luckily, the pizza fared better.

Last but not least, we decided to try dessert—tiramisu ($8), of course. The tiramisu here was heavy on the chocolate. I’m not usually a fan of chocolate, but even I appreciated the addition of dark chocolate shavings on top. (I wasn’t a fan of the chocolate drizzle underneath, however.) The ladyfingers were soaked a bit too long for my tastes, but the filling made up for their shortcoming.

Dessert was heavy on the dark chocolate, but pretty good.

Our server was nice and friendly, but it was clear she was still getting into her groove at the restaurant. It was the little things—forgotten plates for our small bites, silverware cleared prematurely—that get smoothed out as a restaurant, and its servers, get more experience under their belts. But she was helpful and welcoming, which can make all the difference in Carmel’s sometimes stuffy restaurant scene.

The atmosphere at Vesuvio was interesting. It seemed very quiet and sedate in the dining room, but quite the opposite in the lounge. The music—and thus the conversations—were loud, amplified by the stone tile floors. The decor was a bit perplexing—there were old black-and-white Italian photos, reprinted Roman mosaic murals, rustic metal fixtures and a flatscreen TV all in one room. Quite strange. I’m all for a fun, eclectic atmosphere, but perhaps a bit more focus could really help evoke the Italian bistro atmosphere they’re striving for.

Random--and borderline cheesy--decor, including reprints of Roman mosaics.

In the end, I’m quite torn what to think of Vesuvio. Honestly, I think they’re trying to do too much here, taking advantage of the popularity of Mundaka and Cantinetta Luca to nudge their way into Carmel’s emerging late-night food scene. I applaud their efforts, as it’s nice to see more restaurants open late—Vesuvio plans to stay open until 11:00—but I think they first and foremost need to focus on the food and atmosphere, both of which felt incomplete to me. Sure, they’re a new restaurant so perhaps this will evolve over time, but I have to wonder, is there really anything *new* here at Vesuvio. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of culinary deja vu, that I’d eaten the same meal at Little Napoli. And I wasn’t the only one with this opinion—I heard the table next to us say the exact same thing while they were eating their entrees. Vesuvio comes from a time-tested restaurant team with a couple powerhouse local restaurants under their belt. Under their guidance, I expected better food at Vesuvio, and a unique experience with its own distinct character.

I’d love to see Vesuvio grow into its own identity. Hopefully in time this will happen—especially with the Starlight 65 lounge on the roof above Vesuvio—and I look forward to coming back in a couple of months to see how things evolve here. The menu certainly piqued my curiosity—penne in pink vodka sauce is always a favorite of mine, and in time, maybe they’ll get their arancini right. But in the meantime, I’ll stick with more tried-and-true restaurants like Joe Rombi’s La Mia Cucina here in Pacific Grove or Cantinetta Luca in Carmel when I’ve got a craving for Italian food.

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One Response to Vesuvio erupts!

  1. Pingback: Dining Out: June 8, 2011 | Off The Menu

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