According to restaurateur/architect Ken Millo—owner of Cucina Toscana and the new Vivace restaurant—most restaurants have a shelf life of “about 10 years” before they tend to grow stale and in need of change, even if only cosmetic. Such was the case with Cucina Toscana, which had been presided over in recent years by outgoing impresario Valter Nassi. Following an amicable breakup with owner Millo, Nassi and investors purchased the former Metropolitan, and he’ll be opening his namesake restaurant there in coming months. Meanwhile, according to Millo, at Cucina Toscana the focus is back on the food, not the show. Judging from large weekend crowds in recent weeks, I’d say they must be doing something right.
The renewed emphasis on cuisine that Millo mentioned to me is certainly in evidence at his new restaurant, Vivace, located at the corner of 300 South and 300 West, next to Cucina Toscana, in the space that housed the original Caputo’s Market & Deli, which is now upstairs. For starters, Millo has hired what many would consider to be a “dream team” of chefs to breathe new life into the two Italian eateries: Jean Louis Montecot and Elio Scanu. I’ve written about both of these multitalented chefs before and won’t belabor the point, other than to say most restaurateurs would salivate at the thought of just having one of those guys in his kitchen, nevermind both. Ultimately, Montecot will transition to Caterina in Sugar House—Millo’s third eatery—where the focus will be on French cuisine.
Vivace brings a new buzz and energy—especially in warm weather when sidewalk dining is an option—to the block of 300 South that’s also home to Carlucci’s Bakery, Caputo’s, Aquarius Fish Co., Bruges Waffles & Frites and Ekamai Thai. It’s an open, airy trattoria that’s less formal and less expensive than Cucina Toscana, with a tantalizing array of menu options—so many, in fact, that it can get confusing. Essentially, it breaks down like this: There’s an à la carte menu with antipasto, pasta dishes, pizzas, and grilled and roasted entrees. Then there is Cena Vivace, which is a great bang-for-the-buck prix fixe dinner, priced per person (minimum of two people) at $11 for an antipasti platter, $16 for antipasti and pasta, or $20 for antipasti, pasta and grilled selections. Finally, there’s a third dining option: You can sit at the baldacchino bar and enjoy crudos, ceviche and a mozzarella bar. However, you should know that you can also enjoy crudo and such while seated at a regular table, something your server may forget to tell you. So, be sure to look for the board listing the daily specials, which includes the crudo options. Think of the baldacchino as a sort of Italian version of a sushi bar where you interact with the chef and order directly from him.
You’ll want to return to Vivace repeatedly, as I did, to enjoy the interesting range of delicious dishes there. During lunch with a buddy, we tried out a couple of pizzas. My favorite is the n’duja e burrata ($15), which is a rustic pizza with Chef Scanu’s fiery housemade n’duja (a spicy, spreadable pork sausage), housemade burrata, organic tomatoes and fresh basil—simply scrumptious. Cheese lovers will enjoy the four-cheese formaggi morbidi ($11), with stracchino, ricotta, Gorgonzola and fresh mozzarella. Along with the pizzas, we split an order of thin, grilled, tender, rosemary-scented chicken paillards with arugula and cherry tomatoes ($15)—a dish that is as simple as it is delicious.
On a date night, the missus and I tried out the Cena Vivace—the restaurant’s signature dinner—which, as stated, is a tremendous deal. For $20 each, we split a huge vegetable antipasti platter (diners can choose between veggies or meats) with grilled asparagus, roasted red peppers, shaved and grilled fennel, pickled carrots, zucchini, fresh mushrooms, thin-sliced beets, tomatoes, green beans spiked with red chilies, fresh mozzarella bocconcini and more, each item individually seasoned—pretty incredible. That was followed by a pasta dish (again, a choice of meat or veggie) of baked farfalle with a gorgeous browned crust. As with the antipasti, the pasta portion was too much for the two of us, so we took a lot home. For the la griglia selection of Cena Vivace, we were asked to choose three of Vivace’s grilled menu items, which include chicken, sausage, octopus and Gulf shrimp. Opting for the grilled octopus, Creminelli sausage and skewers of pork with pancetta, sausage and sage, we particularly enjoyed the octopus. Like all of the grilled items, it was beautifully charred on Vivace’s wood-stoked grill and amazingly tender, served with mixed greens, heirloom roasted potatoes (those spuds were heaven, although a tad undercooked on a second visit) and red-wine vinaigrette.
Roasted (il girarrosto) dishes are also excellent. Honestly, I’ve never tasted chicken that was more flavorful, juicy and tender than the organic, halal and kosher half-chicken ($18) marinated with fresh herbs and roasted to perfection. The chicken was fantastic with glasses of Ceretto Blange Langhe Arneis ($8) alongside. It’s just one of many very tempting Italian wines on the Vivace list.
For me, though, the highlight of Vivace’s cuisine is the crudo. Similar to ceviche, crudo is raw fish and seafood that is “cooked” via the application of acidic citrus juices such as lemon and lime. On one evening, Scanu prepared four portions of thinly sliced raw halibut, topped with a peach-and-tomato “salsa” and four different salts: Redmond (from Utah), Maldon, hickory-smoked and mesquite-smoked. On another visit, there was prawn carpaccio: thin-sliced prawns pounded even thinner and almost invisible against a white plate background, bathed in lemon-lime citrus, fresh fennel and little gel bits made from a mixture of reduced Campari with aranciata (orange) and limonata (lemon) San Pellegrino sodas—absolutely stunning.
In Italian, vivace means “vivid” or “lively.” With flavors and ambiance as vivid and lively as Vivace’s, the restaurant’s name is a bull’s-eye, just like the food.
308 W. Broadway