For all the twists and turns that life can bring, sometimes every once in a while, it will put you in the right place at the right time. Tonight was just such an example.
I had originally intended to drive down to Wooster tonight to eat at the much-praised South Market Bistro. Not having made reservations, I called about thirty minutes before they officially opened to see if this would be an issue. It turns out that normally showing up at 5 or 5:15 PM would've been completely fine. However, the entire restaurant had been taken over for an event tonight and it was not open to the public. Needless to say, I'm glad I called first.
Finding myself over in the Fairlawn area and considering my dinner options, I decided to give an old standby another go after a decade. Literally, ten years. The last time I had eaten at Vaccaro's Trattoria was back in 1999 right before I left for Boston. My memories of Vaccaro's were not unpleasant; in fact I considered their cuisine a step up from a place like Parasson's. It was the kind of place one would go if you were on a date and wanted a nice Italian meal. I'm not sure why I haven't been back since I returned to Akron in late 2004, but I can assure you, gentle reader, that I intend to rectify that situation whole-heartedly.
When I walked in, I did notice a few cosmetic changes: a separate room for parties and a curtained area for a smaller party in the main dining room. Other than that, it felt like the same old Vaccaro's. Until I sat down. The first thing I noticed was that every linen-lined table had a very elegant accompaniment of linen napkins, bread plates, silverware, wine goblets, and a water glass. OK, I thought to myself, this is definitely a step up from what I remember. My server brought out both the wine menu and dinner menu and I started to look through them. As is often the case, first impressions are the most important.
The wine menu was impressive. It was at the same time very thorough and very accessible. They have numerous reds and whites by the glass and range in price from $6 - $15 per glass, with most being at or below $10. The by-the-bottle list covers several additional pages and most bottles run anywhere from $20 up to about $150. They do save the bottom half of the last page of the menu for their "reserve" selections. These are definitely pricier, but with the pedigrees of these wines, Vacarro's is charging an appropriate amount.
I then took a look at the dinner menu. What impressed me the most was how elegantly simple the menu was. Simple not in a negative way; simple in that you had a two page menu that covered all of the basics and offered both old-world Italian fare and new-world concepts based on old classics. The menu made it quite clear that the focus at Vaccaro's has become all about homemade, locally sourced products that are being transformed into the most wonderful food for its customers.
I would be doing a disservice to my readers out there if I didn't also point out that the price point for many of the menu items has jumped from my last visit. That being said, you can still get a plate of homemade pasta with your choice of about six various homemade sauces for $14. So, even the budget conscious can have a great meal and not break the bank.
Here are some photos of the dinner menu as well as an insert that was in the front of my menu:
If you'll notice on the bottom of the second photo, there are two additional dining options now available at Vaccaro's. First, for a party of six or more guests, a traditional Italian feast is available, family style, for $25 per person. Second, which I was more excited to learn about, a Chef's Tasting menu was now available. Four courses paired with four wines for $40. When I saw this on the menu, I knew that this was the option I wanted tonight. Unfortunately, due to a little confusion in the kitchen, I was initially told that this was only available for two or more people at the table. It wasn't until after I had ordered and finished my main entree that my server explained that the chef was more than happy to do a tasting for one person. Personally I wasn't upset (you'll see why in a few more paragraphs), and I now have something to look forward to trying when I return.
Since I wasn't going with the Chef's Tasting menu, I decided to order a glass of wine from the wine menu. I selected a South African vintage, the Heartland Shiraz for $8.
This was a wonderful glass of wine, with notes of berries and cherry. It wasn't a particularly challenging wine and I thought it would go well with whatever I decided to order.
Next up came the bread service. I didn't think to ask if Vaccaro's makes their own breads, but the bread basket contained at least three different styles. Here is a shot of the basket:
And the Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar dip that was prepared tableside:
I thought about ordering an appetizer, but I hadn't walked into the restaurant truly famished. Instead I decided to stick with a salad and an entree. Looking over the tantalizing list of salads, one just lept off the menu at me: the strawberry rocket salad.
This mix of baby arugula, fresh strawberries, local Mackenzie Farms goat cheese, pine nuts and the most amazing lemon thyme vinaigrette was absolutely perfect. The salad was dressed with just the right amount of the vinaigrette; enough to coat the arugula, but not so much that there was even the smallest trace left on the bottom of the plate. The initial thought that ran through my head when I took my first bite was that someone had very carefully and thoughtfully put this salad together. It had an excellent balance to it, combining sweet, tang, crunch, and spice. I highly recommend this salad.
It was at this point in my meal that I realized that I had discovered a major find here in the Akron area. Every now and again, I will have an out-of-towner ask me where they should go for dinner after they've visited the Akron Museum / Zoo / Aero's Game. Up until now, the only place I could recommend based on their food and consistency had been The Vegiterranean. However, despite the level of vegan cuisine they do there, some people are just not into vegan food. What had been a decision to revisit Vaccaro's because I happened to be in the area had turned my memory of dinners past into a destination dining experience for people in all parts of northeast Ohio.
Back to the food. My entree came out next. While all of the menu items sounded good (as did the three daily specials), the one item that just sounded too good to pass up was the smoked pork loin. Here is my entree:
This is a smoked pork loin with roasted fingerling potatoes, a blackberry and orange compound butter and a gratin of broccoli and cauliflower.
Some closer-up shots:
Along with the compound butter, a balsamic reduction and chili oil also decorated the plate.
THIS. WAS. PHENOMENAL.
While the pork was perfectly cooked (medium) and smoked, it was when you paired it with a little bit of the compound butter and just a little bit of the chili oil that you had this wonderful explosion of flavor in your mouth. Sweet, smoky, spicy, tender. I simply could not believe that this was as good as it was. Remove one component from this dish and it just wouldn't have the same effect. The roasted fingerling potatoes were nicely roasted on the outside, perfectly creamy on the inside and had just the right amount of seasoning on them.
While I am normally not a real fan of cauliflower, the broccoli and cauliflower gratin was most impressively executed. It was creamy and cheesy on the inside and had a nicely browned layer of bread crumbs on top of the casserole. If I had to pick a way to eat cauliflower, this would be it.
I ate about half of my entree and asked my server to box the remaining portion. Honestly, I was quite full at this point. But when my server brought out the dessert menu for me to take a look at, I knew there would be something sweet in my future. Again, I was astonished at how creative and fresh the dessert menu choices were:
And while I admit, creme brulee is not so fresh or original, the rest of the menu sounded quite tempting. My server also told me that the homemade gelati for the day were chocolate espresso, brown sugar cinnamon, and peanut butter.
It was at this point that I broke character and made a small error in judgment. During the course of my meal, I knew that my server had seen me taking pictures of the food. Having just experienced that heavenly pork dish and hearing that they have homemade gelato, I gushed a little bit. I explained that while I'm not in anyone's employ critiquing food, I am just a humble food blogger who really loves finding restaurants such as Vaccaro's and making them available to people who might not otherwise know about them. Should I have waited until after my meal to reveal this? Yeah, probably. But, I encourage you to try their food and see if you wouldn't have broken rank, too.
After hearing that the gelati were available as a sampler trio, I knew that was what I had to have. However, looking over the menu, my heart also longed for the warm cinnamon sugared donuts. I mentioned this quandary to my server and as a result, I received the dessert I originally ordered:
As well as a sampler of the one I didn't:
I did pay for the trio of gelati (and at $6 was totally worth it); the warm donut sampler was complimentary.
Let's talk about the gelati first. From left to right are the chocolate espresso, brown sugar cinnamon, and peanut butter. My least favorite was the peanut butter. It wasn't bad per se, it just didn't blow me away. However, the other two were heaven on a spoon. The chocolate espresso was rich, sweet, and just a little bit bitter from the espresso. A perfect adult dessert. The brown sugar cinnamon had just the right level of sweetness and spice to it.
The warm donut was also fantastic. There is something about a freshly fried donut that is so intoxicating. And when paired with a chocolate sauce and blackberry coulis, you add additional levels of flavor to an already delicious treat. My advice is to go to Vaccaro's with a group and order one of everything so you can share. Your taste buds will thank you.
It was at this point in my meal that I had a surprise visitor, Executive Chef Mike Ferris. Although I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised given the fact that I had just revealed to my server that I was going to be writing about my experience at Vaccaro's on my publicly searchable Internet food blog. He introduced himself and I invited him to join me at my table where we proceeded to chat for a good fifteen to twenty minutes.
It seems that Chef Mike had started out as a line cook and worked his way up to Executive Chef over the course of his tenure there. He explained how he is trying to incorporate as much locally grown and locally sourced products as he can, going so far as to work with local farms to grow exactly the kind of produce and herbs he needs and working with a local lamb farmer to raise a herd specifically for the restaurant. And while he recognizes that some of the customers who come to Vaccaro's are looking to try the nouveau style Italian fare that is on the menu, he knows that there are still a loyal fanbase out there that enjoy nothing more than a nice plate of homemade pasta, red sauce, and fennel sausage.
As I sat there and ate my dessert, Mike brought over his laptop and showed me a pictorial slide show of food he had done at the restaurant for their monthly wine dinners. Vaccaro's tries to feature vintners and vineyards that are unusual in some aspect. Either the wines are unknown in this part of Ohio or the viticulture is a unique style, perhaps organically grown. Chef Mike gets a list of tasting notes from the purveyor and then works to create a multi-course tasting menu to pair with each wine. Wine dinners are usually done during the middle of the week (Tuesday or Wednesday). I asked him how much the price varies from one dinner to the next and he replied with something akin to, "None. The tastings are always $50 per person." Which, I have to admit, is an excellent deal.
I left Vaccaro's feeling completely sated. My stomach was happy, my mouth was happy, and my mind was happy.
Over the last three years, my newly acquired Cleveland friends have introduced me to some of the most stellar chefs and restaurants. Dominic Cerino at Carrie Cerino's. Michael Symon at Lola and Lolita. Jonathon Sawyer at Bar Cento and The Greenhouse Tavern. Doug Katz at Fire. I think it only fair that I am finally able to give back to my friends a newly added chef to that list: Mike Ferris at Vaccaro's Trattoria in Fairlawn, Ohio.