Vivo Trattoria & Wine Bar, a new restaurant at the Hotel at Arundel Preserve, has the burnished looks of a good Tuscan-inspired trattoria. And its mid-priced menu of antipasti, pastas, pizzas and Northern Italian entrees has a kind of broad appeal that's in short supply these days.
On first glance, it's the kind of place that a work group might turn into a favorite payday destination, or where friends from Baltimore and Washington might meet up for a Saturday night dinner.
Everybody likes eating good Italian food in a pretty room. But the Italian food at Vivo lacks punch and pizazz. I never know what to think when this happens, but it's a fun dinner topic: Is Vivo's food bland because its operators have determined, after extensive testing, that the market prefers bland food, or is the food just bland and that's that?
Vivo is the second Maryland restaurant from the Long Island, N.Y-based George Martin Group. The first to hit the area was Grillfire, which opened in 2011 in the same hotel — a boutique amenity located down the road from Arundel Mills mall and Maryland Live Casino. Grillfire and Vivo now flank either side of the hotel's sleek lobby. To the right, with its modern fireplace, plenteous banquette seating and multiple levels, Grillfire is the more upscale option. Coming in, you might feel a little self-conscious if you were wearing a football jersey and jeans.
To the left is Vivo, which has a come-as-you-are vibe. The main dining room has some effective touches like stone walls and elaborate incandescent lighting fixtures, but it doesn't feel fancy or intimidating. The casual service is friendly and solicitous.
Not everything about the restaurant's design works, though. Like many restaurants, Vivo has an open kitchen, but diners get less than thrilling views into service areas and storage areas. It's not so much a turnoff — these areas are clean — as it is weird.
I was expecting the food to be the kind of familiar, well-executed and comforting fare you can find in a well-oiled corporate operation. But Vivo's offerings were below the genre's modest standards.
I've gotten used to finding, for instance, a decent fried calamari appetizer almost anywhere. But Vivo's version offers mushy rings of calamari with a heavy, underseasoned coating. And it's not hard to find, or to make, a meatball appetizer that's more appealing than the very dry blend of veal, beef and prosciutto that Vivo served.
Sometimes, Vivo's menu mentioned an ingredient that was hard to locate on the plate but that would have made the difference, if it had been present, between a so-so dish and a good one.
In a pasta dish, adding a good amount of roasted tomatoes and some more fresh thyme to a bowl of lobster, shrimp and bucatini — that's the long, hollow spaghetti — would have kept every bite from being uniformly bland.
In some cases, like with a margherita pizza and a veal piccata, the preparation at Vivo was not what we were expecting. We're used to a margherita pizza with layers of fresh mozzarella, basil leaves and Roma tomatoes. Vivo's version was more like a conventional pizza where everything is melted together. It wasn't a bad pizza — we enjoyed the thin layer of oil on top — but it wasn't quite right. And the veal was just not good. The meat was tough and the lemon-caper sauce was far too mild.
Nick's Chicken — one of three menu items meant to be shared, family-style, among two or three people — would have been truly fine if everything, the chicken, potatoes and sausage had been seasoned and roasted more expertly.
The best entree was seared tuna, because it had been liberally coated with a garlic spread and sprinkled with parsley and anise seeds. It was nice to have some flavor on the table.
We never got truly frustrated at Vivo. We liked our server, who saw to our needs, and we loved one of the desserts, a toasted olive oil cake served with black mission figs and a Frangelico semifreddo, a firm ice cream. This was unusual, and very good.
Vivo should have more of these menu items that make diners feel engaged. And it should focus on brightening and polishing up its more conventional menu items.
Vivo Trattoria & Wine Bar
Where: 7795 Arundel Mills Blvd., Hanover
Contact: 410-799-7440, vivotrattoria.com
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday and dinner seven days a week
Prices: Appetizers: $6-$14; entrees: $15-$23
Food: Northern Italian specialties and pizzas
Service: Pleasant and helpful
Parking/accessibility: Free parking is available on surface lots and an adjacent garage
Children: There is not a children's menu, but the kitchen will accommodate children.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining rooms. Televisions in the bar area are visible from most of the dining room.
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]