Visconti House 

Little Italy: Southern Italian cooking gets its due at this hidden gem.

click to enlarge JOHN TAYLOR
My gift to you this holiday season is a heads-up about a restaurant I’ll bet you haven’t been to, but may wind up loving: Visconti House, aka Casa Da Visconti. If you’re in need of a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of the holidays, you’d be hard-pressed to do much better than this. Tucked away on a Holladay side street (Phylden Drive) in what once was a small home, Visconti House is an escape from the mundane, in more ways than one.

You might want to Google Map it, but you find Phylden Drive off 2300 East, between 4500 South and Murray Holladay Road. Blink and you’ll miss the restaurant. It’s an intimate affair—a dining room that seats a mere 22 people. Reservations are highly recommended. We strolled in without them for an early Saturday evening dinner and within a half-hour, the place was full. In cold weather, I recommend requesting the table in back near the fireplace; try to avoid the drafty two-person table adjacent to the front door. In warm weather, there’s a patio out back for al fresco dining. Italian tunes play throughout the cozy dining room.

Visconti House is a family affair. The owner/chef is Alessandro Visconti, who is originally from Milan. In 1997, he and his wife opened Casa Da Visconti in Riverton. However, Visconti soon after had a serious nonwork related accident, which sidelined him and forced him to close his restaurant. “My dreams were shut down but I never lost hope that in the future I would have a second chance to start again my business,” says Visconti. Well, the future is now and Visconti House is back and thriving, thanks to the wholesome, simple Italian fare served there.

The menu brims with southern Italian dishes: lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, cannelloni, manicotti, pizza, calzones and the like. It’s not fancy food, but it’s very good, in part because everything is so fresh. The pastas are all made in-house, overnight, and can be ordered a day in advance for $3.75 per pound, if you want to cook it at home.

Appealing antipasti options include Mediterranean seafood arraviato ($9.50), grilled polenta ($5.35), bruschetta ($5.99) and an antipasto plate ($7.50). The portions are large and the seafood arraviato is plenty for four to share. It’s a big plate of mussels, clams, squid and shrimp simmered in a rich tomato-based sauce. You’ll want to use the house-baked slices of focaccia to soak up all that delicious sauce. By the way, big round focaccia loaves—about the size of manhole covers—are available to take home for $4.80. They’re great for making paninis at home. My wife and I could barely put a dent in our grilled polenta appetizer, polenta rectangles topped with homemade marinara sauce, yummy though it was.

Main dishes at Visconti House are accompanied by toasted focaccia and a choice of soup or salad. The salad of mixed greens and tomatoes is large and especially good with homemade balsamic vinaigrette. There’s usually a soup choice of minestrone or pasta e fagioli. Both are really tasty, but I especially like the latter, with small white beans and strands of fresh pasta.

If there’s a signature dish to recommend, I suppose it would be the gnocchi ($11.99). I haven’t had gnocchi this good since the days when Paulo Celeste was making it at Heber’s long-defunct Il Giardino restaurant. I prefer my gnocchi dense and toothsome, rather than light and fluffy, and that’s what these are: little potato bombs ever-so-lightly enhanced with Chef Visconti’s marinara. It’s a simple dish that you’ll return to often once you’ve tried it.

More complex is cannelloni ($12.50)—tubular pasta stuffed with a choice of either beef or chicken and baked until molten hot with a combination of Alfredo and marinara sauce. It’s a hearty dish, perfect for winter weather. Ditto the spaghetti and meatballs ($11.25), which is a generous plate of fresh linguine-type pasta, lightly dressed with marinara and served with two jumbo homemade meatballs, about the size of baseballs. If you like your pasta drowned in sauce, dine somewhere else. I appreciate that Chef Visconti just lightly coats his pasta with sauces, so that you can taste the freshness of the perfectly cooked housemade noodles and gnocchi.

I’m not a big fan of pasta with Alfredo sauce, since in many restaurants it’s a congealed, creamy mess. I prefer the original Alfredo, which is merely pasta tossed with quality butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, I do like Visconti’s pasta Alfredo, which is butter, cheese and just a smidgeon of cream on a bed of fettuccine, and comes with sautéed strips of lemon-kissed boneless chicken breast ($12.25). Frequently, Visconti’s pasta Alfredo is also available with shrimp scampi.

It’s too bad that Visconti House has yet to be granted a wine and beer license—there simply aren’t any available—because this is the type of place that you’ll want to linger. Or, maybe you don’t want to linger, but be prepared to, anyway. Everything is cooked to order and the staff is small. So service is anything but hurried. If you’re in a rush, there’s an Olive Garden not too far away. Or, if you don’t feel like a leisurely meal at the restaurant, you can order everything on the menu to take out. I took a “Padrino” pizza ($9.75) home and it was terrific: thin, crispy crust topped with fresh tomatoes, sliced yellow onions, diced beef, mozzarella cheese and bell peppers. It’s now one of my favorite pizzas.

So there. Visconti House. A tasty little treat for your holiday cheer. You’re welcome.

VISCONTI HOUSE
2340 E. Phylden Drive (4640 South)
Holladay
801-277-6006
ViscontiHouse.com

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