Believe the Buzz
1610 S. Congress, 441-6100
"Well, it wasn't the full-blown Vespaio experience," was my initial response to friends and colleagues eager to hear what I thought of my first meal at Austin's hot new dining spot. "But the food, for the most part, was really good." The "experience" I knew I'd missed out on, of course, was the restaurant's legendary long wait and requisite visit to its handsome, dimly lit bar. How did I manage to avoid an hour or more sandwiched rather intimately alongside other hungry patrons-in-waiting? Admittedly, I hit Vespaio early on a Sunday night -- Super Bowl Sunday -- certainly one of the slowest Sunday nights of the year. So while my first taste of the restaurant turned out to be far less of a mob scene than ought to be expected, the food was what I'd come for.
Although promised a table in 20 minutes or less, the attractive antipasti case beckoned our party into the bar, where we promptly took the advice of a bartender well-versed in the virtues of Italian wines and ordered a bottle of Matilde Rosso Falerno di Massico ($35). The wine, a pinot noir-like Italian red, was brought to life by four rustic-looking Grilled Shrimp ($6.95; antipasti case) served slightly cooler than room temperature, swimming in a shallow pool of red chile sun-dried tomato oil. Commendably moist and far from chewy, the shrimp spoke of wood smoke and summertime. A Ligurian Salad ($7.95; antipasti case) shone as well, a bright, lively blend of bivalves and squid peppered with capers, olives, red bell pepper, and parsley afloat in a citrus-y olive oil dressing.
We were soon carrying our selections into the small, spare dining room, seated, as promised, in just over a quarter-hour. Awaiting us on the modest wood dining table was a basket filled with foccacia and baguette slices, and a pale mound of white bean garlic purée garnished simply, if invitingly, with olive oil and fresh snipped parsley. The purée, a classic bruschetta topping, was met with more enthusiasm than the standard herbed butter pats found elsewhere, and in my opinion better complemented the baguette than the focaccia, which suffered from too much dried garlic pressed into its airy crust.
Craving strong, rich flavors, we opted for the Mare Grigliata ($24.95), the seafood grill, and Anitra Con Fichi ($17.50), semi-boneless duck with port-soaked figs in a red currant sauce laced with surprising spice. Chef Alan Lazarus' meat, seafood, and vegetable grills change nightly, and our seafood selection included a swordfish filet, four fresh oysters on the half-shell, and grilled shrimp much like those we'd devoured as antipasti. Substantial enough to feed two, the seafood grill merited its high-dollar price tag for sheer quantity alone, although its quality left little to be desired. The clean, unobstructed flavors of the entree -- the swordfish was doused simply with lemon, the oysters topped with an Italian-styled "pico" of capers, onion, red bell pepper, and parsley -- proved that food doesn't have to be complicated to be good. Only the shrimp left us wanting. Unlike their antipasti sisters, these grilled crustaceans had overstayed their welcome in the seasoned flour they visited prior to being tossed to the flames. The result was a slightly chalky coating made bearable only by the enticing, smoky-sweet flavor buried underneath. In addition to the array of seafood, the grill featured an earthy combination of roasted red beets and a trio of potatoes. The thick beet slice was luscious, practically caramelized by its time on the fire, and the architectural stack of potatoes festooned with a plume of chives included two types of homemade chips -- sweet potato and Yukon Gold -- united by dollops of skin-on mashers.
It was the duck, though, that captured our attention. Although the server neglected to ask how we wanted it cooked, the bird exited the kitchen perfectly pink inside and full of flavor, its fat seared until golden. Figs circled the plate, providing decadent mouthfuls of sugar against the fowl's rich, meaty flesh. The berry sauce, generally regarded as a classic European accompaniment to duck, turned out to be a tribute to Texas. The thick red reduction departed from the norm with the addition of subtle spice. We're not talking the reach-out-and-grab-you kind of spice, but a slow, soft burn on the palate, one that lingered long after the plate had been cleared away. A pliant section of butternut squash filled with white polenta and topped with caramelized onion completed the plate, along with an onion relish of sorts served slightly cooler than room temperature.
A Spinach Salad ($6.50) offered a change of taste. Crisp greens came topped with walnuts, roasted red bell peppers, and a crisp round of pancetta. A slightly tangy Gorgonzola vinaigrette (as opposed to the clichéd balsamic dressing) infused the salad with newness, and only the roasted peppers deserved to be rethought, as they tasted slightly tinny.
Dessert found us slowly attacking a Torta Giandua ($5.50), a flourless bittersweet chocolate cake glazed with milk chocolate hazelnut ganache and studded with crushed nuts. Although the menu description promised a vanilla bean crème anglaise, we welcomed the slightly lighter touch that the raspberry coulis served in its place afforded. The dessert plate came decorated with candied nut bits called hazelnut croquant, a festive addition, especially when paired with a stout espresso served with a fragrant lemon zest just like in Italy.
Vespaio Experience #2 turned out to be more typical. It was a Thursday night, around 8pm, and the wait for a table was estimated at about two hours. We strode into the bar and confidently elbowed out some personal space before ordering glasses of the Ripassa-Zenato ($8.75 glass; $31.50 bottle), a deep garnet Valpolicello with the aroma of a Zinfandel and the velvety smooth character of a Merlot. As antipasti, we preferred the tiny balls of fresh mozzarella (made by the Mozzarella Company in Dallas) marinated in a lively dried red pepper and fresh basil-flecked olive oil to the bite-sized sections of seared tuna filet that we'd ordered, although both offerings were quickly finished off. As we were returning our empty plates to the bar, the tall table next to us opened up, and we pounced on it, deciding, once settled, to dine in the bar and avoid the remaining hour wait still ahead of us.
This was to be a dinner of pizza and pasta, so the evening's Calzone Special ($9.95) fit the bill, as did the Papparadelle Fungi ($12.50), but we couldn't resist the house special Cape Santre Nostra ($16.50), four lightly breaded sea scallops swimming in a Pernod-gruyere cream sauce. The calzone turned out to be a behemoth plump full of proscuitto, fennel seed-spiked sausage, chicken breast, cheese, and mushrooms. The crust was more of an unbending protective shell than I would have liked, but the flavor was there, especially when paired with the pleasantly tart tomato sauce pooled across the plate. The Papparadelle Fungi was a rich concoction of wide flat noodles folded over on themselves and blanketed with a dark cream sauce scented with brandy, shallots, and an abundance of fresh tarragon. Mushrooms -- among them shiitakes and portobellos -- clung to the pasta, which was so plentiful and filling that we ended up taking away half of it to enjoy at home. The Cape Santre Nosta, an excellent entree, rivaled the pappardelle in richness. In it, four expertly cooked, silver dollar-sized sea scallops swam in a delectable cream sauce. The anise-flavored Pernod provided only a hint of flavor, unable to compete with the assertive sharpness of the gruyere.
Upon the advice of our waiter, who promised to pick up the tab for it if we didn't like it, we finished our meal with an Apple Crostada ($4.50). The perfect dessert for me, a food lover who generally shuns sugar courses, the crostada was an artful stack of fresh apples spiked with cinnamon and lemon juice piled into a crumbling crust. It was painted with a buttery caramel sauce and garnished with blueberries -- a relatively light, cleansing end to the meal.
Beyond the long wait and the fun antipasti case, people generally talk about Vespaio's atmosphere when giving their opinions on the place. There are those who find the small space too cramped and dark, but the decor suits me, especially the warm, cherry-stained wood surfaces, whimsical cut-glass chandeliers, and gently curving wine rack that doubles as a room divider. The somewhat strict wall sconces do make for subdued lighting, but beaded votives give off ample tabletop light. One small alteration the folks at Vespaio could make to improve the dining experience, at least for the diners seated at the three or four tables opposite the kitchen, would be to hang a decorative drape across the doorway into the "back forty." Dining with a view on the wood-burning brick oven is fine, even desirable. It's the view on the vats of flour, suspended ladles, and shuffling, food-splattered line cooks that gets to be too much, especially when enjoying a meal of such high caliber.
It should be noted that the service, both in the bar and the dining room, was top quality. The waitstaff, each time we visited, was friendly and attentive, and never pressured us to eat and run, despite the waiting throngs. Asked by a friend if I'd return to Vespaio for a non-working night out, I replied with a resounding "yes." The restaurant is indeed a scene, but obviously the crowd is onto something. The proof is in the food.