Monday, October 19, 2009

A Cost Conscious Meal at Vaccaro's Trattoria

After my last two wonderful meals at Vaccaro's Trattoria in Bath, OH, I was excited to return for a third visit with another party of friends to once again sample some of Mike Ferris's amazing Italian cuisine. While two of the attendees were repeat visitors, I was happy to have along three new friends who had yet to sample some of this wonderful food. While I wasn't sure what exactly would be on the menu tonight, I had been wanting to try some of Chef Mike's homemade pasta since my first visit.

Just like many restaurants that are trying new and innovative tactics to keep diners coming back, on Saturday nights almost all of the appetizers are priced at half-off. This meant that we could sample many of the tastes on the menu for very little money. We started off with Vaccaro's traditional bread service, starting with a dish of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, some extra virgin olive oil, and just a drizzle of balsamic vinegar:

I described the bread in the basket in more detail in my last post about Vaccaro's, but the wonderfully aromatic rosemary focaccia is always worth a note or two:

While the crumb on Vaccaro's focaccia is more tightly knit than the one I made for the eGullet Heartland Gathering dinner, Chef Mike's was an excellent version, too. Very fresh with a nice savory topping. Dipped in the cheese and oil mixture, this was a nice way to start the meal.

With four of the appetizers being half-off tonight, we just decided to order one of each and share at the table. First up are the stuffed banana peppers with tomato sauce and finished with freshly grated cheese:

Stuffed with a combination of beef, pork, and veal, these were quite good. The banana peppers were spicy, but not overly so. I've had a version of this dish at other restaurants and when the peppers are too spicy, it simply overpowers the other flavors of the dish. The richness of the meat in the peppers went surprisingly well with the hearty tomato sauce that topped the peppers.

Next up was the bruschetta topped with fresh tomato, basil, onion, and another sprinkling of grated cheese:

The crostini had been lightly toasted before being topped with this simple, but herbaceous mixture. Dressed with just a slight bit of balsamic vinegar reduction, the dish hit all of the tasting notes: salty, sour, sweet, and crunchy. The version of this dish on their new menu is different from the last time we went, but it was delicious all the same.

The third appetizer we tried was the Fritta Mista:

In this bowl was a wonderful combination of batter-fried artichoke hearts and button mushrooms, roasted red peppers, diced Genoa salami and a slightly spicy aioli dressing the entire dish. Again, playing to multiple points of the diner's palate, this dish succeeded in combining many different flavors and textures into each bite. I really like the addition of the salami as it gave a real richness to the lighter flavors of the vegetables.

Our fourth, and final, appetizer was the grilled calamari with fresh tomatoes and basil:

A diner at our previous dinner had ordered this and simply raved about it. The smoky flavor of the grilled calamari was excellent and countered the slight sweetness from the tomato. The only criticism I had the entire night was for this dish. While most of the pieces of squid I tried were tender, I did encounter a bite or two with squid that was a bit chewy. That being said, the outstanding flavor more than made up for that small problem.

Here is a shot of my appetizer plate, fully loaded:

Starting at twelve o'clock and moving around the clock face, we have the stuffed banana peppers, the bruschetta, the fritta mista, and finally the grilled squid with tomato and basil. This was a wonderful way to sample many unique flavors without breaking the bank.

While there were many items on the menu that sounded good to me tonight, I opted on going for the fettuccine carbonara for my entree:

Homemade fettuccine noodles tossed with fresh peas, panchetta, red onions, and a bechamel that had been extended with the addition of several eggs, this was a rich, but not too rich bowl of pasta that really delivered. Traditionally the sauce in a carbonara is made almost entirely with eggs and not a bechamel. I've had that version before and it is considerably richer. This version lacked that intense eggy richness, but at the same time, it also didn't weigh me down after only a couple of bites. I think I prefer Chef Mike's version a bit better. The noodles were perfectly cooked and offered that perfect combination of texture and chew that good pasta has. Topped with a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese and this was a dish I not only enjoyed last night when we were there, but also today as an impromptu lunch eaten right out of the take-home container.

The diner setting next to me offered me a taste of his exquisite veal parmesan:

When Chef Mike came out to check on us, I asked him about the coating used on the veal. When I tasted it, it had just the slightest bit of spice to it, enough to make it interesting, but not enough to cover the taste of the other ingredients. It seems that they take Panko (aka Japanese bread crumbs) and grind them even finer in the food processor. The spice I had tasted was from just a pinch or two of crushed red pepper flakes they add to the bread crumbs. Using a standard breading technique, including stops in flour and beaten egg before a coating in the processed Panko is applied, the veal parmesan was the perfect marriage of tender veal and crunchy coating.

Along with a new dinner menu, a new dessert menu was also presented to us:

Two of the desserts were ordered, the Lemon Lemon Lemon and the Zaba Zaba. Zaba is short for zabaglione, or sabayon in French. However, as one of the diners eating with us pointed out, "zaba" also means frog in Slovenian. I'm hazarding a guess here, gentle reader, but I'm sure that "Frog Frog" probably wasn't what the chef had in mind when he named the dessert Zaba Zaba. From the feedback I received from those who had ordered an actual dessert, both were very good.

Personally, I was pretty full after our appetizers and my pasta carbonara, so I opted to go with a nice shot of espresso:

Wonderfully bitter and with a nice thick layer of crema, this was the perfect way to end the meal. Or so I thought.

Right before we ordered our dessert, the restaurant's host and owner, Raphael Vaccaro, came over and introduced himself to us. It seems my cover as a food blogger had been blown as he said he would return after our dessert with something tasty for us to try. He definitely kept his promise. After we had finished our meal, he stopped back at the table with small glasses of a lovely golden-colored aperitivo:

This was a liquore al biscotti, or biscotti liqueur. Served simply over ice, this was an absolutely delicious way to end the meal. With a nose of fennel seed, the flavor was multi-layered and slightly sweet. To my palate, I got lemon, almond, vanilla, fennel, and just a hint of black peppercorn. If you didn't try and analyze it too much, it really did taste like a biscotti. Of course, me being me, I had to take it to the extreme, but I was really amazed at the depth of flavor this one simple liqueur had. Raphael gave us some background of how he managed to acquire this nectar of the gods while we listened and took small sips out of our cups.

We paid the check, gathered our myriad of leftovers and headed out into the cool night air. With my carbonara being only $14, the espresso $2.50, and my share of the appetizers a mere $3, I was happy that both my stomach and my wallet were completely satisfied with the meal we had tonight at Vaccaro's. You can certainly choose to spend a lot more if you want to, but you can also be certain that you will be well-fed and taken care of if you choose to be cost conscious as well. Not that I really need to say it again, but Vaccaro's Trattoria is still highly recommended.

[Ed. Note: It seems that between the time I actually ate the meal you just read about and when this blog post published, Chef Mike has actually left his position at Vaccaro's Trattoria to start up his very own catering company, Gourmet by Design Catering. This was the third fantastic meal I have had at Chef Mike's hand and I will be curious to see the direction in which the new head chef takes Vaccaro's. I will also be curious to see how Chef Mike's new venture pans out for him. I wish them both much continued success.]

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