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Restaurant Reviews

Vivo Partenza: Outrageously Pricey but Damned Good

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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.

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John Linn

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