Vinny's Cafe' is in the heart of industrial Dundalk, but it looks like a memory from a New Jersey childhood, with its red roof, crisp awnings and rococo road sign. One of us has put in considerable time at places that look just like Vinny's and, after passing acres of white Unilever vans and blocks of dingy package stores, was especially relieved by the sight of it.
Vinny's hasn't been visited recently by Michelangelo, although scenes from his Sistine Chapel adorn the walls. Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of traditional Italian cuisine, probably hasn't been there either, but the restaurant has its own flavorful and largely successful take on the Italian standards that Americans have come to claim as their own.
We made a selection from the restaurant's small but adequate and very reasonably priced wine list and then began our meal with mozzarella caprese, an antipasto and Vinny's Salad. The mozzarella caprese, a summer classic, featured delicious fresh cheese, as advertised. Unfortunately, the tomatoes were anemic (there's no excuse this time of year) and there was only one leaf of fresh basil, a necessary accompaniment.
With its generous portions of prosciutto, sopressata, more fresh mozzarella, lovely roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and kalamata olives, the antipasto was a better choice. Only the prosciutto lacked just-sliced freshness and Parma flavor. Vinny's Salad also had loads of crowd-pleasing ingredients, including the mozzarella and red peppers, flavorful cherry tomatoes and a very good balsamic vinegar dressing.
For entrees, it was hard to choose from the menu's large selection of pastas, baked dishes, chicken, veal and seafood, but we soldiered on. Fettuccini Bolognese was a curious but delightful combination of tomato-and-cheese-rich Bolognese meat sauce and an Alfredo sauce: pink, buttery and creamy with plenty of meaty depth and richness. Shrimp Fra Diavolo abounded with crustaceans in a piquant marinara sauce, served on enough fettuccini to feed an army of hungry GM workers from across Holabird Avenue.
The lasagna is made with homemade noodles, ground beef, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses and Vinny's tomato sauce. While it is oddly constructed - with a box of pasta that surrounds the mixture of meat, cheese and sauce, and topped with substantial slices of mozzarella - we ate every delicious bite (and complained of being full the entire time). The only disappointment was the veal, which was very generously portioned, adequately tender and well-cooked, but the Marsala sauce lacked flavor, particularly the essential flavor of the wine.
Not surprisingly, we barely had room for dessert, and since the restaurant doesn't make most of its own, we weren't going to bother. However, the dessert menu features photos of such extravagant looking creations, most imported from Italy, that we couldn't resist trying one or two. We settled on cheesecake and a kind of small chocolate bombe. Both were very good, but the "New York cheesecake" was an especially pleasant surprise. It had the slightly brown top, rich but delicate flavor and very creamy texture we associate with the real thing. Also look for Vinny's lemon or pineapple ice served right in the fruit. They are made on the premises and are so popular that the restaurant sometimes runs out. With its ample dining room filled with peaceful murals of Italian towns (complete with laundry on the line), its friendly servers, crowd-pleasing portions and a capable chef, Vinnie's Cafe' adds up to a keeper. It attracts a mostly local crowd to the dining room (call ahead at peak times like holidays) and to the cheery take-out in the front, but people from outside the neighborhood, like us, will find it worth a try.
6212 Holabird Ave.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers $2.95 to $8.95; entrees $8.95 to $15.95
Food: * * *
Service: * *1/2
Atmosphere: * * *
Rating system: Outstanding, * * * *; Good, * * *; Fair or uneven, * *; Poor, *