Fountain Square was a little less lively for about a month last winter, when Cristian Pietoso shut down his sophisticated Italian restaurant, Via Vite, for renovations. Pietoso—who also owns Nicola’s in Over-the-Rhine and two locations of Forno Osteria + Bar (in Hyde Park and Montgomery)—wanted to make his flagship restaurant “cozier and more comfortable,” as he put it.
The redesigned space, with its expanded outdoor dining and plush upstairs seating, is certainly that. But it hasn’t lost the heart-of-the-city buzz that I have always loved about it. You can join the throng of customers crowded around the redesigned kitchen to watch fresh pasta get sheeted and cut by hand. If you sit at the chef’s table facing the open kitchen, you’ll hear the tune of a well-run restaurant.
My server, Jake, guided me through the menu with authority, pointing out several new additions, like Lobster Tortelloni Al Nero and Chicken Milanese. In addition to the physical renovations, Pietoso also reworked the menu during the restaurant’s brief hiatus. Just as the redesign prizes coziness, the new additions to the menu push Via Vite further into the rustic realm of Italian comfort food. (Via Vite regulars need not worry; the menu’s most beloved items remain. “Our iconic dishes, like the Crispy Gnocchi and the Bolognese, aren’t going anywhere,” he says.)
Of the new dishes, the Pappardelle Pasta e Fagioli best exemplifies this Italian pastoral aesthetic. Warm, garlicky cannellini beans were served in a bowl with broad ribbons of pappardelle, the softness of which can only be achieved by hand (thanks to the expanded pasta station, all but two pastas dishes are now made by hand). It was the kind of dish that makes me want to return in winter just to soak up its warmth.
What better accompaniment to a warm bowl of pasta than a heaping plate of meat? At $18, the Prosciutto Service is a pricey appetizer, but it’s enough meat to satisfy the snacking needs of a sizeable party. The prosciutto was perfect, soft and fatty with a sheen of oil, and there’s plenty of warm, buttery grilled bread to pile it onto.
Sticking to my mission of exploring Via Vite’s new menu items, I ordered the Chicken Milanese entrée. Like the Pasta e Fagioli, it’s pure comfort food, a lighter take on that hearty Northern Italian dish, Veal Milanese. Italian as it was, it reminded me of a schnitzel, with its light breading and sprinkle of lemon butter vinaigrette. The accompanying heirloom tomatoes and a lemony arugula salad provided further acidic bite.
Over the course of my meal, I saw a few parties come and go, including a couple down from Dayton for their anniversary dinner. They were eying my dessert, a delightful vanilla risotto with a caramelized top, a la crème brûlée. I assured them it tasted as good as it looked. They had made several trips to Via Vite over the years and were glad to see it humming again.
On my return visit, this time with two friends in tow, we were seated upstairs in a subdued, dimly lit area that seemed far from the madding crowd. I love that the renovated Via Vite allows for several different dining experiences—downstairs seating in the middle of the action; the more tranquil, romantic upstairs; and outdoor seating with a panoramic view of Fountain Square, which on most nights means dinner and a show.
The food was, for the most part, as good on my second visit as the first. We started off with salads, a half portion of the Classic Caesar and a half portion of the Boucheron Goat Cheese salad (Via Vite offers half portions of both salads and pastas, ideal for diners who love to play the field). Of the two, the goat cheese salad was certainly the highlight. The frisée, with its speckles of pistachio and drizzle of raspberry-truffle vinaigrette, had a rich, smoky flavor that was enveloped, but not smothered, by the creamy cheese.
The Fritto Misto appetizer was a great follow-up to the salad course. Calamari and shrimp are lightly breaded and fried and served in a basket with Fresno chilies and grilled lemon. Unlike so many fried seafood dishes that evoke little more than a bubbling fryer, the sea really shines through here, while the Fresno chilies add a pleasant tingle to the briny dish. The dish itself is proof that Via Vite’s heartier menu still has room for light, refreshing Italian fare. Ditto for the tangy, oily Burrata Panzanella: a medley of creamy cheese, charred broccolini, tomatoes, croutons, and a crisp Calabrian vinaigrette. If you’re looking for the quickest possible trip to some sun-soaked piazza, take a bite of this dish and be transported.
My friends chose pasta dishes as entrées, both of which were solid. The lasagna, which is available only on Fridays, was soft with a nice smoky char. My vegetarian friend opted for the Mama’s Eggplant Parmigiana appetizer, smothered in a robust pomodoro sauce (similar to marinara but thicker), as her main. It rested on a bed of spaghetti that she described as “Proper al dente. You can sink your teeth into it.” Of course, I had to try some and she was right.
That’s the thing about the new Via Vite. It’s cozier and more comfortable, but it still offers the kind of food and the kind of night that you can’t wait to sink your teeth into.
Via Vite, 520 Vine St., downtown, (513) 721-8483