I've got an idea for a new reality show. It's called The Real Housewives of Boca Raton, and it could be filmed almost exclusively inside Vivo Partenza.
Think about it: Those "Real Housewives" shows are all about wealthy socialites living out their dramatic lives. And I can't imagine a better backdrop for drama or luxury than Vivo. Those creamy taupe curtains, the palatial banquettes, the swaths of glass and marble — it's like a sultan's palace in there. The place is absolutely full of well-coifed Boca matrons, the skin on their faces pulled tighter than a snare-drum head, mouths rapping with equal veracity. And just imagine the establishing shots: Camera pulls high above the lot to reveal Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, and Mercedes galore. Think of the product placement!
Even the name, Vivo Partenza, has something lofty and dramatic about it. According to the thick layer of PR draped over the joint, it's Italian for something like "a lively departure." Truth is, Vivo isn't much of a departure from its previous incarnation, Bova Ristorante, which collapsed just before the epic fall of its majority shareholder, Scott Rothstein. When Rothstein got nabbed for orchestrating one of the biggest Ponzi schemes to ever hit South Florida, part-owners Tony and Laurie Bova were forced to close up shop on their three locations, leaving employees and vendors unpaid in the process.
But it seems that in South Florida, all is forgotten and forgiven quickly. A mere month after their last standing restaurant closed, the Bovas wiped the dust off their original location in Boca Raton and reopened those mirrored double doors. Now, it's like Rothstein never happened at all: That palatial interior? Bova. The crowd? They all dined at Bova. The menu? That's right: pure Bova. Vivo's menu even lists Italian food "definitions" up-front, just like the one at Bova did.
To some, Tony and Laurie Bova's phoenix-like resurrection best represents the duplicitous nature of the restaurant biz — one day, you're bankrupt and stiffing people to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars; the next, you're reopening a luxurious restaurant in the heart of South Florida's wealthiest community. But for every detractor, there's some blue-haired Boca-ite who fondly recalls the fantastic restaurant Bova once was. And boy, will they tell you about it. It's as if each one of them is an Italian mother pleading for her son's innocence. "My boy wouldn't-a do that," they say, their mouths half full of snapper vesuvio or lobster tail oreganata. "He's a good boy!" Well here's a news flash: Those folks are still streaming into the place like it was 2006 all over again. They still order $200 bottles of wine to go with their $40 steaks, and they still bask in the luxury that is slowly but ever-so-surely shrinking, diminishing, disappearing.
But as long as they're basking, we might as well too. And so I brought my own family to Vivo on a recent Friday night. We showed up around 8 o'clock, right as the restaurant was bustling with people, its large foyer cluttered with both a hostess stand (helmed by Laurie Bova herself) and a long table filled with guests dining under the shadow of an ornate, silver candelabra. As we entered, a jazz singer from the bar walked through the lobby, belting a soulful tune into a wireless mic. As his silky voice echoed in the loudspeaker, the clink of glasses and the thrum of service mixed to create a chorus of activity. This place was happening.
The five of us were quickly escorted to one of those palatial booths on the far wall, affording us a view that panned over the entire restaurant. It was such a nice seat, I almost thought I'd been found out as a critic. We certainly didn't look like we fit in, anyway: Though each of us had dressed up smartly for the occasion, it was clear we were tourists in this strange world.
Tourist or not, I'll stay as long as Vivo welcomes guests with plates like the antipasto platter we shared ($23). We had ordered it to give us something to nibble on as we perused the expansive menu, but it was almost a meal unto itself. Thinly shaved pieces of prosciutto and coppa adorned the plate, along with a simple arugula salad graced with chunks of honest-to-goodness parmigiano reggiano. There were rounds of fried eggplant, wood-fried artichokes, and the most luxurious roasted red peppers you'll ever find. Oh my God, the peppers. Those fleshy, flame-licked morsels are less vegetable than event, tasting at once sweet and robust. I'd wager they find their way into 50 percent of the dishes at Vivo too. Despite that, I can't say I'd ever tire of them.
Also with peppers: a set of supple meatballs ($14) draped in vibrant tomato sauce and a slick of house-made ricotta. The meatballs are great, but the ricotta is the star. It also shows up on Vivo's menu frequently, most notably with the complimentary bread placed on each table. My brother, ever the ricotta fan, pretty much demolished the stuff. He scooped up the creamy cheese in big swaths, layering it on rosemary- and sea-salt-spiked focaccia and wonderfully crisp flatbread accented by a mere swipe of tomato sauce. A tougher sell for him was the octopus carpaccio I ordered ($14), but the fleshy slivers won him over all the same.
Vivo's menu is absolutely huge. In its previous life during the Bova years, it sat as a 12-page tome. Now, it's more or less confined to one legal-sized flip card, though that flip card is lined inch-by-inch with nine-point type. Visually, the sheer amount of options can be pretty daunting. My advice is break it down by category and order one thing from each. For salads, it's tough to beat the decided simplicity of the summer fagiolini salad ($10), a Niçoise-like array of crispy fingerling potatoes, haricot verts, and simply dressed greens. There are dozens each of pizzas and pastas, including old-school renditions of linguine and clams ($18) and tuna Milanese pies ($18) made with marscapone. For lunch, you'll find everything from frittata to chicken paillard, plus a sizable list of sandwiches that are quite good. My preference there is easy: a duo of foie gras "sliders" with pear compote ($23), and an upscale take on a classic grilled cheese larded with short ribs, fontina, and horseradish cream. The latter is comforting and indulgent and just like Mom used to make — if your mom was Mama Cass, that is.
My mom? "I have no idea what to order," she said, still picking over the antipasto and furrowing her brow. "Everything's too expensive." I told her to soldier up. Vivo is the sort of place where you either go big or go home. So she caved and got the crab-crusted sea bass ($39), the recommendation from our waitress. Bro was also upsold from a $15 burger to a $38 rib eye. Dad got a $35 piece of snapper smothered in mussels, calamari, and shrimp. I opted for the osso buco — a cool $38 as well.
Service at Vivo is polite and effective if not a little rushed. I get the feeling, though, that these work-a-day folks are unused to people smiling at them. When we thanked a busboy for clearing the appetizer plates from our table, he began to beam with such a wide smile that it was almost as if we were his first human contact of the night. Minutes later, he shuffled back with our entrées, and we were the ones beaming. Mom thought the sea bass, perched high on a bed of wilted spinach and mashed sweet potatoes, was divine. I thought it was a little dry. Dad's snapper wasn't to my taste either. The menu had promised it featured only a "stain of sauce," but the stain looked more like a tidal wave of tomato. Worse, that soupy plate was so hot thanks to the sauce that it turned the already-cooked shellfish on top into clenched-up, tough little nuggets. Luckily, my osso buco was better. A veritable mountain of meat, the braised veal shank was toppling all over the plate, a single sprig of rosemary protruding from the bone in the middle like a surrender flag. It was supple, tender, and moist. My only complaint was with the somewhat firm risotto underneath.
Then, there was the best of the best: my fiancée's fagottini ($24), purses of ricotta and Gorgonzola cheese, pocked with bits of caramelized pear and set in cream sauce so velvety, one of those Boca matrons could wear it like a stole. Even better was my brother's "Guido" steak, a sliced-up rib eye served over a bed of roasted peppers. What made it special was the cut: Vivo's "rib eye" is essentially all spinalis, a well-marbled bit of trim hailing from the edge of the rib eye. I've never seen a steak cut only from this dark, fatty portion before, but it was definitely worth the effort. The fact that Vivo takes the richest, must indulgent portion of an already expensive cut of meat and makes a whole steak out of it speaks volumes about the kind of place it is.
And that kind of place is "good." Yes, it's easy to gripe about how expensive Vivo is — outrageously so, even. But like a mattress or an Italian sports car, this is a meal in which the price actually validates the food, not the other way around. To the wealthy elite who fill this place on a nightly basis, it's all about luxury. For the rest of us, dropping $40 on a single plate seems about as normal as driving away in one of those $100k Maseratis in the parking lot. But then again, my values may be different. After all, I still feel genuine disgust at the thought of people getting swindled by Ponzi schemers for millions of dollars — or maybe it's more that they had those millions to so carelessly throw around in the first place. But hell, we can moonlight. We can be entertained. And we sure as hell can watch. If by any chance some television producer is reading this now, take note.