MASSENA A long time ago it was a bank. More recently the building in the middle of the Harte Haven Shopping Center parking lot was a Mexican restaurant.
Voila! Now its Vino Vidi Vici, Massenas newest Italian restaurant.
Owners Christa and Tarek Makdouli have totally remodeled Vino with a warm and welcoming décor, incorporating a piece of Massena history into their new endeavor: old pews from a local church for booth seating and the churchs former pulpit as their hostess station.
Even with a nearly full house (including several children) on a Monday night, the atmosphere was relatively quiet and subdued. The acoustics seemed to absorb all the chatter and clatter.
Lighting was at the right level; music was at the right volume. Half curtains in the windows helped us forget we were in the middle of a parking lot. We would have preferred the thermostat kicked up a couple of degrees.
The bar area is tucked away in a separate room, yet visible from the main floor impressive copper bar top, sleek pendant lighting and stylin stools. But not very inhabited the hour we were there; it seemed to serve more as an employee break room.
We had a bit of a rough start, with a long delay after sitting down. Both servers were busy serving up meals to all the folks who had arrived a bit earlier than we did. The bartender eventually realized we were unattended and took a stab at table service.
Glasses for water arrived haphazardly, as did menus and the beer and wine list. No one asked if we cared for a drink if for nothing else than to buy the restaurant some time while they were getting slammed.
Once Wendy, our waitress, stepped in, things started moving along nicely. The beer and wine menu is fairly extensive, a multipage affair with offerings definitely not run-of-the-mill. We particularly liked the variety (and quality!) of reasonably priced wines available by the glass. Fat Monk Chardonnay was a standout.
We could classify the food as upscale casual Italian: appetizers, salads, soups, specialty pizzas, pasta dishes and a handful of meat entrees. The lunch menu is similar, with burgers and panini in place of pasta dishes and entrees.
A round of drinks, a basket of toasted baguette slices and some balsamic dipping oil got the evening under way. However, the hard bread was not dunkable in the oil, leaving us to believe perhaps we got the wrong stuff.
We chose The Risotto Cake ($10), The Mozzarella Block ($8), The Pear and Gorgonzola Salad ($) and The Small Pesto Pizza ($13) for starters. Everything on the menu has The in front of it, so get used to it.
The Risotto Cake consisted of a large puck of the starchy rice combined with butternut squash and pieces of scallop, coated with coarse panko breadcrumbs, lightly deep-fried, topped with large shrimp and finished with a swipe of Alfredo and a few additional swipes of balsamic glaze.
Busy, busy. But good. A unique dish with a lovely presentation that set the tone for the evening. Too many flavors to comprehend, really. But what was memorable was the chewy, gooey-good rice and the crunch of the crisp panko coating.
And the fact that the accommodating Wendy was able to supply four shrimp on top of the creation, one for each of us at the table, rather than the three specified on the menu. Right then and there, we knew she was going to be a good server.
Ordinarily, I avoid deep-fried mozzarella in restaurants. Usually its the same old, same old.
Not here. It was truly a block of fresh mozzarella about the size of an oversized deck of cards, coated with that great crunchy panko and deep-fried to perfection. The cheese was melted and stringy but still kept its shape. It was splashed with a very nice house-made marinara sauce.
The Pear and Gorgonzola salad was a pleasing mix of fresh local greens, roasted red peppers, walnuts, thinly sliced candied pears and Gorgonzola cheese (similar to blue cheese), all drizzled with their own blackberry balsamic vinaigrette.
The Pesto Pizza was a highlight, bursting with flavors. Perfectly cooked, great crust, generous toppings (sun-dried tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, basil pesto and melted mozzarella).
Get ready for a whopping, supersized north country portion of The Chicken Marsala ($15). Two large, tender breasts of chicken were smothered in a rich, deep brown Marsala demi-glace loaded with mushrooms. Yumm-eee.
Wendy gladly substituted a side of spaghetti with marinara sauce for the potato and vegetable that usually comes with the dish. The marinara was really delicious, clearly fresh and house made a classic marinara.
A pasta dish called The Mediterranean ($19) was awesome, a generous portion of linguini loaded with snappy shrimp, tender calamari and huge melt-in-your-mouth scallops sautéed with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and spinach.
The light wine and lemon white sauce was delicious and allowed the individual flavors of each component of the dish to shine through. There was the right proportion of seafood to noodles as well, often overlooked but so very important in a pasta dish.
The Carbonara ($15) is a classic Italian pasta dish not seen too often in these parts. Finely diced pancetta (Italian bacon), peas and portobello mushrooms are sautéed with olive oil and tossed with fettuccini, then finished with a made-to-order heavy cream/egg/Parmesan cheese sauce.
Vino nailed this one.
Finally, we tried The Ravioli. Its available two ways: three cheese ($13) or ratatouille and goat cheese ($15). We went with the latter.
The presentation the ratatouille-stuffed ravioli fanned out on the plate with the goat cheese melted in the center was very appealing, all bathed in a pretty blush basil crème sauce that did not disappoint.
The pasta itself was firm and well-prepared; the ratatouille filling was filled with flavor. All of the ingredients melded together perfectly.
Desserts are made in-house and are priced at $6 each.
The Cheesecake was the best weve had in some time. The slice easily stood two inches high and was centered on a plate drizzled with caramel. We passed on the toppings (cherries or blueberries), allowing us to experience the delightful texture and creaminess of the product perfectly dense, with a buttery graham cracker crust.
Two thumbs up from the cheesecake snob at our table.
The Flan was a more substantial texture than the light custard we expected, but the flavor was good. The Italian Cream Cake was a giant slice, but unfortunately a little on the stale side. The Cannoli was decent, a commercial shell filled with their own sugary ricotta cheese mix.
Dinner for four came to $174.35 before tip and before figuring in beverages.
All in all, Vino Vidi Vici was a very positive dining experience. Chef Rob Davis is to be commended for putting together an accessible, well-executed menu.
Wendys enthusiasm, friendly manner and professional touch were the cherries on top. She juggled the load of being one of only two servers taking care of the packed dining room while still being attentive to us throughout the evening. She made us feel like we had a new friend.
The owners of Vino also own Italian On The Run, an Italian takeout place, which has moved from its Main Street location to become part of the Vino operation. IOTR is available via a drive-thru window outside or at your table for some simpler offerings, perfect for kids or lighter eaters.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vino Vidi Vici
160 Harte Haven Plaza
A new restaurant in Massena serving upscale casual Italian fare
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
APPETIZER PICKS: The Risotto Cake; The Mozzarella Block
SALAD PICK: The Pear and Gorgonzola
PIZZA PICK: The Pesto
ENTRÉE PICKS: The Mediterranean, The Chicken Marsala, The Carbonara
DESSERT PICK: The Cheesecake
THE RATING: 4 forks