Former Clevelander Dan Krasny has returned home (part time) to transplant his successful Chicago restaurant Vivo into The Arcade downtown. Like its sister eatery on too-hip Randolph Street in Chicago, Vivo's mission here is "great food, great service in a great room." Krasny spends alternate weeks in Cleveland and Chicago, keeping a hand in the operation of both restaurants.
The expansiveness of the space and the vibrant atmosphere are the first things to strike diners as they enter via a doorway on Euclid Avenue. Muted club music mixes with the conversation of a hundred patrons, reverberating off the brick walls and copper columns to climb into the high ceilings, charging the air with energy. Vivo is not the restaurant for a cozy, intimate dinner for two. It's a place for friends to gather, talk and laugh out loud.
Warm earth tones adorn the walls in shades of burnt umber, black, tan and multicolored brick. Oversized velvet tapestries in black and gold cascade to the floor. White tables with crisp, starched linens stand in stark contrast to the darkened room, each tabletop illuminated by its own halogen spotlight in the ceiling. One of our dining companions said it made her feel as if she was on a stage.
A central, open kitchen stands behind the main dining room with a long contemporary bar on the opposite wall. A planned downstairs dining room will sport a slightly different look, with terra cotta floors and indirect light from a set of metal wall sconces emblazoned with a signature "V." Gold-leaf accent on the wall trim adds an extra touch of elegance.
Restrooms, tidy and attended by a member of the restaurant staff, follow the decorative scheme. These are downstairs, but also have access via elevator.
(For those who follow the headlines, Vivo recently went to battle with the state of Ohio because of racks of old, undrinkable wine purchased for a song and utilized solely for decorative purposes. The wine was confiscated because it was imported from out of state against Ohio regulations. Well, the bottles have returned to their rightful place on the wall at Vivo however, they are now empty.)
Vivo pulls together a staff of talented individuals with significant collective experience in the restaurant business. Executive chef Todd Stein teams with general manager John Walker, front-of-house manager Adam Godec and sous chef Keoko Turner. Stein moved to Cleveland from Chicago five years ago and worked at the former Piccolo Mondo and at Sans Souci. A graduate of Kendall College culinary school in Evanston, Ill., he draws on experience in many of Chicago's fine restaurants, including Gordon, Spruce, Hudson Club, Park Avenue Café and MK.
Apps a plenty
According to Stein, Vivo's menu was developed with the philosophy of using "the simplest and freshest ingredients while keeping with the root of Italian cuisine." Choices are arranged in classic Italian style: antipasto (appetizers), insalate (salads), paste (pasta), secondi (entrees) and contorni (side dishes).
We sampled a variety of starters, which are served in ample portions; in fact, several of these would easily be a full meal. Order the mussels Grigliati ($8) and a hefty bowl arrives at the table filled with 20 juicy mussels nested in a chunky tomato sauce with an extra kick of hot pepper.
The success of the portobello appetizer ($7) is in the infusion of hearty wood-smoked flavor that draws out the earthy, rustic nature of the mushroom. The charcoal grill is stoked daily with a combination of apple, oak, maple and cherry hardwoods. Two grilled portobello caps sandwich a filling of stewed tomatoes, garlic and creamy, melt-in-your-mouth goat cheese.
Vivo's signature appetizer is sautéed calamari ($7) accented by the tangy sweetness of red onions marinated in balsamic vinegar and the smoothness of a basil-infused olive oil drizzled on the perimeter of the plate. A very light glazing of lemon citronette adds just the right amount of acidity to balance this delightful dish. But what Mediterranean meal is complete without an order of carpaccio ($10)? A finely sliced layer of beef serves as the palette for a collection of fundamental Italian ingredients at their best: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Tuscan olive oil, capers, sea salt, aged balsamic vinegar and a toss of mixed field greens.
The greens in our salads were crisp and fresh. Much of the produce used at Vivo is locally grown at Chef's Garden in Huron. The sweet anise flavor of shaved fennel offset the tartness of the baby arugula in the Rucola salad ($7). This is finished with lemon, olive oil and a sprinkling of Parmigiano. The Caesar ($7) proved an excellent rendition of the classic. The Mista ($6) is Vivo's version of a house salad, simply prepared with grape tomatoes and a light coating of balsamic vinaigrette.
Subtly is key
Did we still have the appetite for entrees? You bet! A variation on a southern Italian dish, the salmon Livornese ($19) is served atop a classic tomato sauce with giant capers and a combination of several olives. (Cod is the traditional fish used in this item.) An olive oil infused with lemon subtly complements the flavor of the seafood and the salmon flaked apart to yield a succulent interior.
Seared cod ($22) is cooked with the skin to develop a crispy exterior, which holds the fillet together in its bath of delightful saffron-tomato fish broth finished with butter. The cod is nestled in a bed of escarole and white beans, which have been braised in olive oil to foster a smooth consistency. The Tonno Pepato ($24) is a grilled, pepper-crusted tuna steak served with sweet onions and slow-roasted fennel. The almost candylike nature of the fennel helps to tone down the spiciness of this fish. However, the heavy coating of peppercorn seemed to overpower the natural flavors of the tuna, detracting from our enjoyment. As much as we like pepper, sometimes less is more.
Our only real disappointment among the dishes was the New York Strip ($32), which was overcooked and scorched to the point of dryness on the exterior. Based on the proper preparation of the other entrees, we suspect this was a single mistake that somehow slipped through the line. But in a restaurant of this caliber, one expects more attention to detail.
Vivo offers a limited selection of four side dishes. The rapini ($6), in a portion suitable for two, was the best we've sampled in Cleveland. First, the rapini (broccoli raab) is blanched to preserve color, then sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chile flakes, adding a touch of heat. It's said that rapini needs a lot of garlic and Vivo loads it on just right. The spinach and garlic ($6) was also splendid, with large hunks of aromatic garlic scattered throughout the greens.
The dessert menu offers a limited but tasty selection. Our order of gelati ($5) came with pistachio and vanilla bean flavors. However, our favorite was the Crostata ($7), prepared on that evening with warm apples partially covered in a flaky pastry crust with a topping of vanilla-bean gelato melting into every nook and cranny.
The wine list at Vivo is almost exclusively Italian, with every region represented. The full-bodied Bel Colle Barolo (Piedmonte, $62) was an excellent accompaniment to our meal, with the strength to stand up to the flavorful tomato sauces. We sampled a bottle of Toffoli Prosecco "Conegliana" (Veneto, $25) as an after-dinner wine. Prosecco is a crisp, slightly sweet sparkling wine that Italians consider a "sipping" wine, suitable to drink for any occasion, any time of day. It is certainly a wonderful way to finish a meal. Nineteen wines are available by the glass ($6 to $13) and choices by the bottle range from the Palazzone Grechetto, Umbria ($24), to a 1997 Antinori Brunello Di Montalcino, Tuscany ($325).
In a "building" mode
Our experience at Vivo was marred somewhat by inconsistent service. On our initial visit, everyone at the table felt rushed through dinner. Our server appeared flustered, made a variety of errors and clearly lacked experience. We had to resist the urge to offer assistance pulling the cork from our wine bottle as she struggled for several minutes. Luckily, we ducked just as the top of the pepper mill took flight with a resultant shower of peppercorns in a 10-foot radius. (Those little guys really like to roll when they hit a hardwood floor.) Our second visit, though, was a model of perfect service, with a courteous and attentive waiter who was knowledgeable and helpful. This dramatic contrast really highlights the importance of the server to the overall satisfaction with a fine-dining experience.
Like anything truly alive, Vivo continues to develop and grow since its September 2002 opening. A private dining room with a banquet table for 20 in the rear of the restaurant was about to open at press time. Full audiovisual support will be available for presentations. A downstairs banquet dining area for 50, scheduled to open early this year, will likely be a much quieter and more intimate setting.
We toured the construction site for the most intriguing addition, a lounge in the basement with a separate entrance from the alley behind the building. This space feels like a subterranean grotto. With the addition of benches, overstuffed chairs, funky lighting and the right music, it will surely become a destination of its own. In addition to spirits, Vivo plans to serve food from the restaurant menu there.
Plans for quarterly wine dinners, guest-chef dinners and Valentine's Day events are in the works. In Stein's words: "We are building [Vivo] one piece at a time."
When all the components are assembled, Vivo will likely become a one-stop source for entertainment in a neighborhood that is poised to become a second Warehouse District.
Vivo, 347 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, (216) 621-4678. Hours: lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. -2 p.m.; dinner Mon-Thu 5 - 11 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 p.m. - midnight