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By Bernie Whitmore
VIA Italian Table
89 Shrewsbury Street, Worcester
In a town that measures itself by its breadth of restaurants, new ones are eagerly anticipated. But during the period VIA spent converting a building at the threshold of Shrewsbury Street, expectations mounted ever higher. This was more than just a new restaurant! By virtue of location and pedigree of its association with the Sole Proprietor and 111 Chophouse, VIA’s destiny was inflated to “flagship of the dining district”…Lofty heights indeed!
A quick stop for Chianti and antipasto on VIA’s patio last summer didn’t disappoint ~ it just whet my appetite for a return visit that was delayed ‘til late September. The patio’s transformation was amazing. VIA’s gardener had softened what was once a canyon of brick buildings and had brought outside dining alive with flowers and vines. A swarm of diners appreciated the effort.
But I wanted the full dining experience, so my friend and I entered the dining room and requested a table. Within minutes we were seated in an area by the kitchen. VIA’s dining room is an open plan split into a few distinct areas unified by décor elements such as the handsome candelabras of glowing pillar candles. For now I’ll remain partial to the kitchen area with its large tray of golden loaves of bread dramatically illuminated on a sacrificial alter.
Paige, our waitress, promptly arrived to greet us and take our drink order ~ we chose a half-carafe of “house” Montepulciano wine. She left us with a round loaf of crusty bread; we sliced hunks of it to dip in fruity olive oil while browsing the menu. Several of VIA’s appetizers are unique to the area: the Tart of Asparagus, Pancetta and Parmesan was intriguing, but we opted to share an order of Fried Artichoke Hearts.
I love artichokes so much I could write poetry about them. Unfortunately, I could also write horror stories regarding their typical fate in America. VIA treats them with a level of honor and skill more often accorded in Roma: two medium-sized ’chokes were sliced in half length-wise all the way down four inches of stem, then lightly marinated, dredged in zesty breadcrumbs and fried till tender. Squisito! They were served with lemon aioli, a tasty flavor complement.
A theme of rustic full-flavored dishes requiring time and inspiration in their creation continued with our entrees. It seems that my friend just cannot resist Osso Buco, so naturally it was his choice that evening. Traditionally, Osso Buco is braised veal shanks. But VIA has modified the recipe and braised a large pork shank for hours in tomato gravy ‘til the meat fell from the bone. True to the original formula was the pleasant undertaste of citrus. VIA served it with risotto rich with deep earthy flavors of wild mushrooms. The smooth Montepulciano was an ideal wine match!
At once intrigued by my entrée choice of Gnocchi Pie, I was also very apprehensive about the mention of ragout flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove spices. My first forkful was a major relief! I enjoyed a perfect balance of flavors ~ none of those spices dominated. The “pie” was a layer of potato gnocchi in a personal-sized metal skillet (hot!) layered with the ragout and tender fall-apart braised beef. It was topped with shredded cheese baked to a light golden crust.
The menu contains a tribute to gelato and VIA’s Carpigiani gelato machine. As one last temptation of fate we decided to try a selection of their homemade Gelati and Sorbetto. Our sample included large scoops of strawberry and pistachio gelati and peach sorbetto. Each was tasty; but for creaminess and intensity of flavor my vote is for the pistachio ~ it was worthy of a shop in Firenze!
I cannot pretend to be ignorant of the criticism VIA has suffered since its opening. Some of it may have been justified in the first months of operation. However, my experiences at VIA have been without flaw. This, my first full meal at VIA, was a total pleasure in both the quality of the cuisine, attentive service and value ~ our bill came in at $70 total. This isn’t a typical Italian-American restaurant; what I’ve seen and tasted leads me to believe that VIA Italian Table is striving for more regional flavors and experiences. Crowds of happy diners seem to agree.