From the Vento la Trattoria patio, nestled across from Huntington Beach, a cool Lake Erie breeze and a cocktail help shed the sands of a hectic day. The mood is peaceful, and the surroundings are green. So it's hard to imagine Vento had such a troubled start.
A little more than a year ago, the Lilliputian-like restaurant seemed to be in jeopardy. Owner Di DeRubba was diagnosed with cancer just a few days before Vento's opening. And if that weren't problem enough, the eatery had no liquor license, few utensils and nothing to really cook with.
But DeRubba didn't miss a beat. She was not about to let cancer destroy her restaurant. In the midst of treatment, DeRubba bought a panini griddle, which added the not-so-Italian sandwiches to the short list of salads that were her only menu offerings.
She got her liquor license and now offers patrons a modest selection of Italian wines and "rest of the world" choices from California and South America.
When money was tight, DeRubba found investors: Bay Village native and TV star Patricia Heaton and her actor husband, David Hunt, along with DeRubba's husband, John McDonnell, owner of the Rocky River restaurant Tartine. The extra financial support paired with a new executive chef seems to be the push that has taken Vento from young startup to the go-to spot on the West Side.
When chef Meg Armour took the reins at Vento late in 2009, she did so quietly. She spent more than a month watching, tasting and creating in a kitchen with a tiny electric oven and two burners. The new gig enchanted Amour, who spent the previous five years working at Delmonico's in Independence as well as several other restaurants within the Hospitality Restaurant family. She took it as a challenge to leave a kitchen that was far bigger than the entire restaurant she now serves.
"The goal here is to let people pick from the menu at will," says Armour, whose menu reflects the attitude of the space: casually slow-paced with a taste for adventure. "Simple is a better philosophy. What I really like is when people come in and take the time, relax and have multiple courses."
Her arrival at Vento was as welcome as a cool summer evening. Paninis were out except for lunch. The menu was revamped to include Italian cheese boards and homemade gnocchi and cavatappi. The handful of entrees carrying an Italian theme and flatbread pizzas, including one with capicola, spiced cherry sauce and a crumbling of gorgonzola ($10), round out the offerings.
The variety allows diners to graze through the meal, starting with a number of out of the ordinary appetizers. The sweet lump crab cake with a saffron aioli, for example, was a creative turn on the often boring, dry starter common in many local restaurants ($10). One rarely sees saffron used with crab outside of bouillabaisse and other seafood dishes, and in this case the saffron was not overwhelmed by other ingredients.
A real surprise was the truffle sacchetti ($17), one of the best vegetarian dishes I have eaten. Pasta pouches stuffed with vegetables and truffle nuances popped in nearly every bite. The truffle oil had the seductive flavor that keeps one asking for more. The creamy sauce complemented by the sweetness of the sun-dried tomatoes created the perfect balance between tart tomatoes and roasted mushrooms and eggplant. It's Armour's favorite dish and was mine as well.
A second table favorite was the pistachio chicken ($15) that came with smoked ricotta gnocchi. You know it's perfectly cooked when you slice into the meat and the bird's clear and savory juice flows onto the plate. The soft pillowlike smoky gnocchi makes a nice companion for the nuttiness of the chicken.
The one foible of the evening was the veal scaloppini ($18). The cutlets served at our table were barely edible. It is a shame, especially because the chef only needs to pound the heck out of the veal a bit more and toss it in a pan. The sun-dried tomato risotto, pesto cream, caramelized onions and banana peppers were tasty, but the chewy veal overshadowed the components that worked well.
A simple menu of $6 desserts carry the same Italian bent as the entrees and are worth the end to the meal. The chilled chocolate zuccotto, a sweet brownie cake filled with hazelnut cream and strawberry sauce, makes a perfect hot summer treat.