By Bernie Whitmore
After taking my seat at Viva Bene, I opened my menu and the first thing I noticed was the proverb: chi mangia bene, viva bene. A degree from Rosetta Stone® School of Italian wasn’t necessary because the translation was conveniently provided: who eats well, lives well. Plenty of “living well” was going on in the lounge; the after-work hour had a hoard of customers enjoying camaraderie and a quick drink before the commute home.
But at this early-evening hour the dining room was decidedly quieter. My friend and I had met for a midweek dinner and, for the time being, we had Tom-the-Waiter all to ourselves. He gave us his full attention, starting with a recitation of the evening’s specials, presentation of menus and a basket of sliced Italian bread with herbed olive oil for dipping. I needed some time to make an entrée decision before placing my drink order, so Tom receded back into the shadows for a few minutes.
Vive Bene’s wine list manages to keep things brief while offering a group of strong candidates that include the Francis Ford Coppola, Rodney Strong and Kendall Jackson vineyards with several choices available by-the-glass. There are also selections for those of us on tighter budgets.
We started our meal by sharing an Antipasto. Viva Bene lays a foundation of chopped lettuce and sliced tomatoes tossed with olives and roasted peppers all drenched with sweet balsamic vinaigrette. Over this were thick strips of Italian cold cuts and provolone cheese. The spiciness of the capicola and salami contrasted delightfully with the sweet dressing. Cherry tomatoes added bright color and were sliced in half for ease-of-use. This antipasto was sized perfectly for the two of us.
At first glance, the “Seasonal Specials” seemed to consist entirely of meat-on-skewer options. But tonight I needed the goodness of pasta so I turned to the regular menu and considered Linguini Alla Gorgonzola or Spinach & Five Blend Cheese Ravioli. Then, on closer examination, I discovered another special that I made my choice.
My entrée, Mussels Ortica, was a plate of steamed mussels over angel hair pasta all soaked in deep-green pesto sauce. The mussels were absolutely clean; nothing clung to the shells except a smattering of pesto. Tom returned twice with bowls for the shells I was soon tossing away. At first I focused exclusively on the tender shellfish. Then I decided to empty all the shells over the capellini pasta and toss it with handfuls of shredded cheese. It was like an appetizer and entrée combined! The mixture of seafood broth, white wine sauce and deep-season basil made an extraordinary dressing.
I paired my entrée with a glass of Screw Kappa Napa Merlot. It was the name that initially fascinated me so I asked Tom about it. After tasting a sample I decided to order a glass. The wine’s deep ruby-red color was visually stunning in Viva Bene’s handsome stemware. And, as with its name, there was nothing shy about its flavor of lush ripe red blackberries and tannin.
Across the table, my friend was equally impressed with his entrée, Grilled Swordfish served with creamy rice and vegetables. It came with a salsa of roasted corn, black beans and chopped tomatoes. He raved about the combination of the cool salsa with the hot fish that had been perfectly grilled to seal in flavor and juices. The fuss was too much, so I snagged a forkful of the salsa. He was right, the Mid-Eastern spices ~ cumin, lemon and mint ~ were unusual and delicious.
We finished by sharing a wedge of Chocolate Hazelnut Torte. This is a classic flavor combination that at first taste made me sorry about sharing; I wanted all for myself! Light chocolate mousse was layered with ground hazelnuts and surrounded by large dollops of frothy whipped cream. It was a fine ending to an exceptional meal.
Viva Bene has persisted against great odds in their downtown location. They’ve been resourceful in teaming with theaters such as the Hanover. But consistent quality and exceptional cuisine are the true markers of their success.