Thursday, September 15, 2011
Vesuvio, named after Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, erupted three months ago in the old Piatti Ristorante space at Junipero and Sixth in Carmel. As the volcano responsible for burying the town of Pompeii and a symbol of Southern Italian power and strength, Vesuvius is a suitable namesake for the latest of enterprising entrepreneur/chef Richard Pepe’s local epicurean ventures.
Those include Little Napoli, the most Italian-American restaurant of his collection, Tuscany-themed Peppoli and the casual Carmel Bakery. Vesuvio aims to give more love to Pepe’s southern Italian Campanian roots, offering healthy country cooking to Carmelites.
My friends and I decided to meet at the rooftop bar for a drink before taking a seat downstairs. The bar was hopping with couples sipping and snacking in front of strategically placed fire pits. The minute I stepped onto the roof I knew – as long as the food was good – I would be back to this hidden piece of heaven.
The fog-encrusted view of Carmel with blankets to wrap up in (if the heat lamps and fire pits weren’t enough) was delightful. Groovy, uplifting music was playing in the background while we started with the two Chardonnays by the glass: a 2009 Rombauer out of Napa ($16) and 2009 Atlas Peak Napa wine under the Pepe wine label ($11). After spending $50 on three drinks and bubbly water we moved down a level.
The restaurant was spacious, painted in toasty tones with large, classy black and white photos of Sophia Lauren, Italian cars and Vespa scooters as decor. Fire sets the mood and is the theme throughout the restaurant.
Our waitress was young, which had me concerned she wouldn’t be too knowledgeable about the menu or wine, but she impressed us with comments on favorite dishes and proved comfortable answering all of our questions.
We started with the fire grilled artichoke ($11), a meatball lollipop special ($9) and garlic-tomato bruschetta ($6).
All were excellent. The trimmed artichoke wasn’t too oily and had a nice touch of balsamic drizzled along with a smoky aioli. The four lollipops were a tender mix of pork and beef so soft and succulent I wondered if a little veal was involved, and the garlic bread-like bruschetta was generously portioned and crisp on the bottom, while precisely saturated with sauce, cheese, fresh basil and garlic. It’s also unlike the bruschetta I have known: This 100-year-old recipe is similar to a medium-size, thick-crust pizza, and could fill up two people.
The arugula salad ($8) was wonderfully abundant, containing micro “rocket” arugula (just like I’ve had in Italy but harder to find in the states), with lightly pickled rounds of red onion, plus tomatoes, feta, capers and a lovely vinaigrette. The only oopsie: the tomatoes were underripe and cold from refrigeration.
Next we ordered a good mix from the menu. I opted for the chicken “al mattone” ($24), a grilled chicken in a chipotle and Cippolini onion sauce accompanied by a simple romaine salad and house vinaigrette. A chicken dish so simple has the potential to bore, but here the sauce was to die for and made the dish delish. The accompanying salad, with small chunks of celery and grape tomatoes, was the piece in need of excitement – maybe house cured olives or some capers or strong cheese.
My man couldn’t resist the wild boar “Bolognese” pappardelle ($24.50), big, fat noodles, ground boar in a light marinara topped with braised boar. The meat fell off the bone and definitely delivered a more complex flavor than average pork without being gamey. It paired well with Pepe’s own Cabernet blend “Vesuvio” ($12/glass; $48/bottle).
The stout wine list is mostly Italian, but includes the chef’s own label from Atlas Peak in Napa, a couple of upper crust local wines like Silvestri Pinot and a range of Napa varietals. All five wines we tried were high caliber and divine.
The biggest meat eater of the group ordered the 16-ounce Black Angus T-bone ($33) that was as big as his head and larger than its plate. It came with the same romaine salad, cooked medium as requested and enjoyed great flavor. All meats are sourced from Meyer Ranch, a hormone-free Midwest beef company. It would have been nice to see more local meats on the menu, but we were happy that they were natural. There’s even a “Berkshire heritage” pork chop on the menu for $29.
My friend was thrilled by a vegetarian pizza option containing her favorite elements – goat cheese, pesto and pine nuts – for $17.50. The irregular, thin crust pizza arrived in a house-pulled shape, crisp and perfect for two to share. A cheese girl came to the table with an offering of a worn down Parmesan block to grate fresh. T-Bone instructed her to grate until her arm hurt.
We shared three deserts: tiramisu, limoncello mousse cake and white chocolate crème brulee ($8 each). The presentation was excellent, as were the generous deserts, with big mint leaves dusted with powdered sugar which I love with my sweets. Both the tiramisu and limoncello mousse cake were light and flavorful without being too sweet. Like the breads and pizza crusts, all desserts are made in house.
We traded tastes and agreed the word of the night was “well-balanced”: The four of us appreciated that none of the food was too heavy or greasy, and so allowed us to keep ordering more without feeling stuffed and ready to quit – quite the a smart tactic. Chef Pepe may or may not be ruling the world soon, but with his diverse Italian restaurant options, house-made everything, and lively new hot spot on the roof top, he at least rules the Italian scene in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
VESUVIO Corner of Sixth and Junipero, Carmel. • 4-11pm Wednesday through Sunday. • 626-PEPE.