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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Restaurant Review: Vincenzo's in Winston Salem, NC

A Nice Little Middle-of-the-Road Italian-American Place.

Winston-Salem is the fourth largest city in North Carolina. Part of the the “Piedmont Triad” that includes Greensboro and High Point, it's home to Wake Forest University. Often called “Camel City” in recognition of one of its most famous products, it's a town that tobacco built. Okay, so it's also the birthplace of “Krispy Kreme” doughnuts. At any rate, in such a place you'd think it would be easy to find a good Italian restaurant, right? Well, it is and it isn't.

It's a college town and the list of pizza joints is as long as your arm. But the number of Italian restaurants that aren't primarily pizza places is quite a bit smaller. You can count them on one hand – and have fingers to spare. Chief among them is Vincenzo's, a family run establishment with a long local history.

According to current manager Richard Patella, Vincenzo's came into being back in 1964 as a result of the paucity of Italian places that existed even then. Enter “Uncle Nick,” a Demon Deacon football player who saw the void and called in his Italian family to fill it. His genitori e fratelli made their way to Winston-Salem from Pennsylvania, where they had operated a small Italian eatery in a market oversaturated with small Italian eateries. Naming their new North Carolina venture after one of the boys, Vince, the family set up shop in a location on Robin Hood Road, where they continue to thrive today.

I'll get to the food in a minute, but first let me share some overall thoughts on Vincenzo's. If I had to boil them all down to one word, that word would be “enduring.” I was around in 1964 – not around Vincenzo's, mind you, but around – and stepping into Vincenzo's now is like walking through a doorway in time. I'm sure there have been numerous touch-ups and replacements done over the years, but the overall character of the place probably hasn't changed much since they opened. You step from a brightly lit vestibule decorated with photographs of famous patrons into a dining room that is incredibly dark. A little too dark perhaps. I had to keep relying on my wife's superior eyesight to read the fine print on the menu, and I had to take my first bite before I realized that my entree had arrived with the wrong sauce on it. (Note: Dim lighting is romantic when you're twenty. It's a bitch when you pass fifty.) Tables and booths are comfortably arranged in a relatively small space that is artfully designed to allow for intimacy despite the crowding. As I'm sure he did two generations ago, Sinatra still sings Cole Porter in the background, which is just as it should be in any good Italian-American establishment.

Gordon Ramsay would hate the place. He'd be tearing down dividers and doing away with dark wood and throwing lighter colors on the walls and installing brighter lights.....I mean, Vincenzo's is definitely dated. But that's part of its unique charm.

Clad in dark pants, white pleated-front shirts, and black bow-ties, members of the waitstaff move about briskly and efficiently under Richard's direction. He's easy to spot in his dark suit as he keeps a watchful eye on traffic in the dining room while also personally greeting and seating his guests. The servers, most of them local college students, are perfectly polite and well informed. They go about their duties in a manner that indicates obvious good training. Kudos, Richard.

The food is good, sturdy Italian-American fare. There's nothing really fancy and there's little that really screams Italian. That's not a knock. Very few middle-of-the-road Italian restaurants in the US are really that Italian. They all rely on their Italian-American roots and serve food that few native Italians would recognize. Veal Parmigiana, Chicken Parmigiana, Fettuccine Alfredo and other “classic” dishes populate the menu, and that's okay. In the same way that very few Italians recognize the food served in American “Italian” restaurants, very few Americans recognize the offerings of a genuine Italian place. So the Americanized “comfort food” served at places like Vincenzo's is fine if that's what your palate demands and recognizes as “Italian food.” And Vincenzo's does such food very well, indeed, following recipes Nonna handed down over three generations of family cooks in the kitchen.

We were a party of four seated comfortably at a dark table in the center of the room on the downswing of a busy Saturday night service. Everything was very prompt; we were seated promptly, our orders were taken promptly, and the food arrived in a prompt fashion. My wife positively raved over her very full portion of Lobster and Fettuccine, succulent lobster sautéed in butter and wine blended with creamy Alfredo sauce and served over perfectly al dente fettuccine. If you follow my scribblings, you know how I feel about the concoction of cream, butter, and cheese Americans throw together under the misnomer “Alfredo sauce.” Someday I'll find a place that does it right – the way Alfredo actually made it – and I'll just faint dead away. Anyway, I sampled the “Alfredo sauce” and found it to be a better than average imitation of the real thing, cream notwithstanding. With generous amounts of lobster in the dish, it was worth the $18.50 outlay.

My choice of Cheese Ravioli was a good one. Caveat emptor; the dish, deliciously light little pasta pillows filled with a velvety ricotta cheese filling, comes topped with a meat sauce. You have the option to have it topped with with a plain tomato sauce or with an Alfredo sauce, but the default setting is meat sauce. I figured that out only after groping through it in the dark. I had intended to have the tomato sauce but neglected to specify. The meat sauce came as a surprise, but it was still a very good dish. At $10.50, I had no complaints.

Our dinner companions completely cleaned their plates of their respective orders of Baked Lasagne and Stuffed Manicotti. Both dishes are listed as “House Specialties” and both were deemed delicious. The $11.99 and $10.50 price tags were pretty tasty, too.

Having little room left for dessert, we wound up sharing a marvelously creamy and sweet cannoli and a decadent excogitation of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse on a chocolate crust topped with chocolate fudge and called, appropriately, a “Chocolate Confusion.” Big flavors for little prices; $3.99 for the former and $4.50 for the latter.

Oh, and by the way, Vincenzo's does serve a mean New York-style pizza, as well. And they deliver. But you don't ever get the feeling that you're in a pizzeria that also sells other Italian food. Vincenzo's is a nice Italian-American restaurant that also sells pizza, and that's perfectly fine. You wouldn't label Spago as a “pizza joint” just because Wolfgang Puck includes pizza on the menu, right?

Vincenzo's is a nice middle-of-the-road kind of place. You can dress up if you so choose or you can wear jeans. They're open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11am to 2pm and for dinner from 5pm to 9:30 pm Monday through Thursday, 5pm to 10:30pm on Friday and from 4:30pm to 10:30pm on Saturday. Closed Sunday. There is ample parking and reservations are not required.

Vincenzo's
3449 Robinhood Road
Winston-Salem, NC 27106-4701
(336) 765-3176

1 comment:

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