The last time I had a meal at Vaccaro's Trattoria, I was fortunate enough to have a short conversation with owner and chef Raphael Vaccaro. He suggested that I gather some of my foodie friends and he would cook us a multi-course menu of the classic Italian recipes he grew up on and that weren't necessarily on the menu. I agreed and told him to give me a price per person not including drinks or alcohol. He came back and surprised me with me a six course menu for only $25 per person. I picked a date, told him to set the number of guests at ten, and proceeded to contact anyone whom I thought might be interested.
As it turns out, ten turned out to be the correct number as that was how many converged on Vaccaro's Trattoria last Saturday night at 6:30 PM. I arrived a little early to help get our service staff on the same page. I asked my server if we could just do separate checks for everything and she indicated that it wouldn't be any problem at all. I talked with Aaron, who is one of the wine stewards at Vaccaro's (the guy really knows his stuff) and I asked him to bring out two bottles of prosecco at the beginning so that we could have a nice holiday toast. Chef Raphael also briefly came out to welcome myself and my guest. Just as quickly, guests began to arrive.
While I do trust my own sense of taste (and I'm guessing if you are a repeat reader here on Exploring Food, you might, too), I am always nervous introducing new chefs and new restaurants to my foodie friends. With two other food bloggers in attendance tonight, I knew that this had to be an impressive meal. And not to reveal the mystery too early, but I was quite pleased at the outcome.
After most of the guests arrived, I had the other wine steward, Martin, proceed with opening and pouring the prosecco. While I had originally inquired about a producer I had tried at a wine tasting earlier in the week, unfortunately they didn't have any more of that brand available, but Aaron said he had something very similar. Here was what he came up with:
After everyone who wanted one had a glass, I proposed my toast, we all clinked champagne flutes and officially declared the meal started. Chef Raphael, as he did during each course of our meal, came out with the first course to give us some background on why he chose to start the meal this way. Our first dish, the appetizer course, was to be pizza. Pizza Nostra, literally translated as "Our Pizza", to be more precise:
Here was a shot of my appetizer plate:
Topped simply with fresh tomato, onions, garlic, herbs and a judicious amount of Romano cheese, this pizza was truly a revelation. While the dough was homemade, it hadn't been retarded or fermented at all. The chef had first cooked the pizza in his regular pizza oven, but then added the touch of brilliance that everyone, including Nancy, who is a connoisseur of New York City-style pizza, thought put it over the top; to add extra flavor, he put the cooked pies on the grill to get just a slight bit of char on the crust. Topped off simply with a drizzle of olive oil, this was soul-satisfyingly good. Where we had been a fairly talkative group just seconds prior, now there was complete silence, save for the occasional moan of pleasure.
As the chef told us about his thoughts on what makes good pizza, we sat and ate in silence. At one point he mentioned how he hadn't planned on serving any bread with dinner tonight and that's why there weren't dishes of olive oil for dipping on the table. The only problem, of course, was that there were already dishes of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and freshed grated cheese at three points on the table. "I guess there are." After he went back to the kitchen, two baskets of bread showed up, too. I've talked about the bread and the oil before, but I thought I'd include two shots just for completeness:
Our second course was to be the soup course, specifically Italian Wedding soup. Here was a shot of my bowl:
Chef Raphael explained that his soup didn't use chicken base for the broth; instead he started with actual chickens. The meatballs were a combination of beef, pork, and veal. The greens were a mixture of escarole, endive, and spinach. The tiny grains of pasta at the bottom of the bowl were acini di pepe. The final component, a mixture of eggs and more Romano cheese had been added at the last moment. Again, the chef used a well-trained and restrained hand on the Romano cheese. The results? Unbelievably good. More than one person commented that this was the best version of Italian Wedding soup that they had ever had. I think I fell in step with that line of thinking, too.
The soup was so well-balanced and delicious that I had a hard time putting my spoon down until my bowl was absolutely dry as a bone. The pasta was cooked absolutely perfectly, having just a little chew, but no starchiness. The meatballs were amazingly soft and flavorful. For me, however, what really put this version over the top was the Romano cheese. Enough so that you knew it was there, but it didn't overpower the dish at all. Another slam dunk for old world Italian recipes.
Our third course was the salad course. This was our mixed green salad:
Composed of Boston Bibb and Arugala, this was topped with fresh blueberries, shaved Parmesan cheese and topped with a red wine and aged balsamic vinaigrette. To the side of everyone's plate was a small roulade made from fresh cheese curds the chef had rolled out, filled with a paste of sun-dried tomatoes and basil, rolled up and then sliced.
Prior to our consumption of the salad, our server walked around with what can only be called a Howitzer of a pepper mill, offering freshly cracked pepper to those who wanted it:
The first two courses being composed primarily of sweet, savory, and salty, this course was to take us to bitter. The bitterness of the greens was a refreshing change-up. The blueberries, amazingly sweet for this time of year, helped to balance the bitterness of the greens. The fresh curd pinwheel was also delicious and added a nice flavor counterpoint to the salad.
The fourth course, our pasta course, was hand rolled cavatelli served with a slow-simmered sauce of tomatoes, onions, beef and pork. Knowing that some of the diners were already starting to indicate that they were filling up quickly, the chef mercifully kept the size of the portions on the smaller side:
Again topped with just the right amount of Romano cheese, the smell was heavenly. The pasta was done perfectly al dente. Although I will have to concede that the "al dente" was more of an Italian one than an American one. To an Italian palate, this was the texture meant when one says "al dente." To an American palate, however, this was probably a bit too toothsome. Regardless, the condimento, or sauce, was impeccable. The slow-cooking had really allowed the sauce to develop a truly rich depth of flavor that no bottled sauce could ever hope to replicate.
Our fifth course, sauteed veal with lemon and parsley, showed off the maxim that if you start with good ingredients and treat them well, you don't need gimmicks or tons of extra ingredients to make the dish really shine. Here was a shot of my veal:
While I am not one to find the face of the Virgin Mary in everyday objects, I couldn't help but think that my veal, prepared by an Italian chef in an Italian restaurant, had an oddly similar resemblance to a famous boot-shaped country in the Mediterranean.
According to Chef Raphael, he had simply pounded the veal thin, coated it in 00 flour, pan seared it it some clarified butter and then finished it simply with fresh lemon juice and parsley. While the other four courses had been perfectly seasoned, the chef indicated that he choose to underseason this one slightly. Fair enough, but a lot of my dinner guests tonight thought it could use a smidge more salt. Once we managed to track down a few salt shakers, a few extra grains of salt were all that was required to bring this dish completely into focus. The veal was incredibly tender and the combination of lemon, butter, and parsley were simple, yet very effective.
One of the guests who didn't eat veal, requested something different and this was brought to the table, a stuffed and baked eggplant:
While I didn't get to try this, the diner who ate it said it was simply marvelous (in fact, it was her photo that I am using).
Finally, we were on our last course. The chef wisely finished up the meal with two scoops of Vaccaro's homemade gelati, pistachio and butter pecan. Each plate was decorated with a single luscious blackberry and sprinkled with powdered sugar:
With my dessert, I ordered a cup of decaffeinated coffee, hold the sugar and cream, please:
While the portion may look small, it was the perfect amount to end this gluttonous meal. The pistachio really sang in my mouth and I almost got the sense that there was a second flavor in there, too, almond perhaps? The nuts in the butter pecan had been toasted prior to incorporation into the gelato. This not only brought out the full flavor of the pecans, but also made them easier to eat and not so crunchy. The blackberry, it should be noted, was also uncharacteristically sweet, just like the blueberries were in the salad course.
It's hard to believe that this entire meal was only $25 per person, but it was. Like I mentioned before, these dishes aren't on Vaccaro's standard menu, but there isn't a reason to think that if you are planning your next dinner party, Chef Raphael and his team can't do something equally as impressive for you, too, gentle reader.
Now clearly I would be deluding myself if I thought that the chef didn't know I was going to write about tonight's experience and that he needed to bring his "A" game to the dinner table tonight. He and his staff did an outstanding job of making our experience tonight one that none of us will soon forget. I have been trumpeting Vaccaro's name since I first stepped foot back into the restaurant back in May after a ten year absence. Over the last seven months they have continued to deliver a wonderful menu, excellent food and service, and a pleasant and warm environment in which to experience it all. Whether you work with the chef to put something special together or decide just to order off of their regular menu, I think you'll be pleased with what you get. Of course, even the best of restaurants can have an off night, but I have yet to experience one of those at Vaccaro's Trattoria.
[* Note: The photographs of the "Howitzer" pepper mill and the stuffed roasted eggplant were taken by one of the dinner guests, Nancy Rhodes. She has graciously surrendered her ownership and copyright to me and I have released them on this blog under the same Creative Commons license in which the rest of the content is governed.]