It's feast or famine at Viccino Bistro. Not for customers, but for the restaurant itself. When something's happening at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Lyric Opera House, you can't buy a table; otherwise evenings are slow. That's too bad because with free valet parking, it's a place that deserves to be a destination in itself.
If you haven't eaten there in a while, you may be surprised to learn that Viccino has reinvented itself. The kitchen no longer turns out strictly Italian food with a contemporary edge; Southwestern and Asian influences are just as prevalent as Italian on the menu.
Some things have stayed the same, all of them good. The long, narrow dining room is still as casual and comfortable as I remember it, with dark-green booths complemented by blond wood and soft, neutral colors. Local watercolors add a dreamy touch. This time of year each table sports a miniature pumpkin, a seasonality reflected in the menu.
When you sit down, glasses are still filled ceremoniously with bottled water. The bread still has some character to it, although brown bread has replaced the focaccia. The waiter still manages just that right balance of friendliness and subservience; the meal is properly paced thanks largely to him.
Viccino knows its audience and has plenty to offer both opera-goers and neighborhood folks dropping in for a quick bite. The latter might be interested in one of the eight salads or eight pastas, all reasonably priced, while those out for an evening might want veal tenderloin or jumbo lump crab meat in a seafood mousse with a red pepper rouille. (Needless to say, those cost a bit more.)
It's hard to generalize about the food here except to say it's presented with great flair, so even if you aren't wild about what you're eating you'll enjoy the beauty of food arranged on large, colorful plates with elegant garnishes. A searingly spicy hot appetizer of blackened scallops left me cold, but I admired the way the four over-seasoned scallops flanked a delicious bit of creamy risotto on the pretty dish.
You could start with a grilled romaine salad. The smoky flavor of the lightly charred lettuce is surprisingly appealing when it's set off with gratings of salty Asiago cheese, the sweetness of caramelized cloves of garlic and the tang of balsamic vinaigrette.
Other possible starters might be the soup of the day or a stuffed portobello mushroom, offering an intriguing juxtaposition of tastes: artichoke hearts, sweet red peppers, creamy Boursin cheese. The soup of the day is often black bean, our waiter told us, because the day chef is Spanish. (From that I gather he whips up a batch for lunch and leaves it simmering on the back of the stove.) It's a suave version of the classic, garnished with rice and finely chopped onion.
As for entrees, intensely flavorful (and bright orange) pumpkin ravioli, sparked with ginger, outshone several more elaborate main courses. Fresh spinach contributed to the explosion of color on the plate, while a delicately creamy Gorgonzola sauce finished the plump pillows off beautifully.
Tender chunks of pork tenderloin had a sauce of their juices perfumed with balsamic vinegar and horseradish. They flanked more of Viccino's creamy risotto, slivers of portobello and spinach.
Both of these are on the regular menu, and we liked both better than the two specials we ordered.
Duck sauced with a dark, fragrant reduction wasn't bad, simply overcooked and with a soggy skin. Thin, crisp curls of fried sweet potato and emerald-green snow peas helped make up for its flaws.
But swordfish with lump crab meat and a cilantro chili lime beurre blanc had nothing to redeem it once the crab was gone. And the swordfish itself had an odd taste to it. Not that it had gone bad, but more as if it had been marinated in something that didn't work.
Desserts are as pretty and elaborate as you might expect at a place that's an after-theater destination.
You could make do with something as restrained as two biscotti, one chocolate and one almond; go the traditional Italian route with a cannolo filled with ricotta and chocolate chips; or throw discretion to the winds and opt for a banana fried in a crisp shell and arranged whimsically with chocolate shavings, raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream.
Food: ** 1/2
Where: 1317 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$9; main courses, $12-$24
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *