Vivo Kitchen opened as a destination and has become a neighborhood restaurant.
That’s an observation chef-owner Sam DiBattista made about his place when I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. He attributes the change to the sheer number of restaurants that have opened in Pittsburgh over the past two years.
- Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.
- Basics: Vivo is a captivating neighborhood restaurant run by chef-owners Sam and Lori DiBattista, who are as much the draw as their simple, delicious dishes.
- Dishes: Frittata, grilled mushrooms, burrata ball with tomatoes, butter lettuce salad, roasted elephant garlic, crispy whole chicken, dry-aged ribeye, scallops and black garlic, lamb chops.
- Prices: Starters $5 to $12; mains $19 to $34; desserts $6 to $9.
- Summary: Split-plate charge $12; street parking; corkage
- Noise level: Moderate.
Beginning in 2000, Vivo drew diners to Bellevue, then to Sewickley when it moved in 2011. As restaurants have begun to shape discussion of the city’s revival, Mr. DiBattista has reconsidered how diners want to eat.
Keeping true to himself, he rejects the influence of trend-setting restaurants, yet his Italian restaurant is not bound to Italian-American classics. As a matter of fact, there’s only one listing of sauce as an accompaniment to campanelle, the lone pasta on the menu.
His thoughtful approach keeps Vivo relevant and vital.
On a Thursday night, the bar was three-deep at 8 p.m. A table of 12 enjoyed a feast in the center of a packed room.
With its cork floors, black-paned windows and a wide marble bar, the dining room is a looker. Outside, diners are captivated by a patio with globe lights framed by a garden where Mr. DiBattista gathers herbs during dinner service. In late July, basil grows waist-high.
In the kitchen, he cooks with the ease of a seasoned chef who is still in love with his craft. He doesn’t try too hard, and the dishes are better for it.
You can see this in the small plates, such as the two-colored bolete mushrooms ($9) foraged by a friend, grilled then drizzled with olive oil and finished with coarse salt. During one visit, it’s the most compelling dish of the night.
Starters are more exciting than the mains because they deliver less common ingredients in accessible presentations, such as the frittata ($9) that also celebrates mushrooms of the season. Freighted with chanterelles and chicken of the woods, the egg dish is garnished with cherry tomato and basil that’s nice although not necessary because it’s delicious on its own.
Mr. DiBattista’s wife, Lori, admonishes him for serving elephant garlic ($5), a dish she may consider coarse, if only for garlic’s domineering reputation. Roasting mellows cloves to a spreadable first-bite, served with slices of baguette. (If only the bread were better.)
California artichokes ($10) arrive copper-brown, fried, salted and oiled. The server suggests, “Eat the leaves like potato chips” — a good idea in theory, but they’re a bit stalky. Move on to the choke that’s soft enough to eat, giving way to fresh hearts, a welcome departure from jarred versions too often served in other restaurants.
Heirloom tomatoes ($10) pair African basil and burrata, a pocket of silken cream peppered and drizzled with oil. Served at room-temperature, concentrated summer flavors remind diners why this has become a ubiquitous dish.
Speaking of tomatoes, back in the kitchen, Mr. DiBattista grabs one from an oversized stainless-steel bowl. He slices it at the head of a table that reaches toward the dining room, stopped short by a built-in bookshelf with cookbooks above the window and a wine rack below.
Cooks man stations on either side, chopping, sauteing and expediting dishes. One works the fry station, where, having already been roasted that afternoon, a whole chicken ($19) takes a dip in crackling-hot oil when a diner places an order. The two-step process leads to an incredibly juicy chicken with completely crispy skin. Topped with a confetti of fried garlic, it’s Mr. DiBattista’s take on the Provencal classic, chicken with 40 garlic cloves. The only distraction is the underseasoned and woody layer of wild rice.
Australian lamb ($35) with fresh rosemary and balsamic wears a comely char, although I wish the meat were from Elysian Fields or Jamison, nearby farms raising Pennsylvania lamb that’s less gamey, although more expensive. Served with succotash, it’s not a disappointment, although there are a few of those.
They include the pork and chevre meatballs ($7) with a spicy pepper cream, a clash of ingredients and texture. The scallops starter ($8) lies fresh on the half-shell, yet even with mango glaze, the dish could be more interesting with a different ingredient.
There’s also a skimp on the shrimp, a fire-roasted Asian version of a shrimp cocktail with citrus plum sauce on the side. At $26, it does not deliver.
What delivers is after-dinner coffee, a glass of espresso served on a napkined plate beside a demi-spoon holding a single sugar cube.
Made by Ms. DiBattista, desserts can charm the table, whether it’s the cannoli cream between pizzelles or a profiterole drizzled with chocolate. I prefer the affogato with vanilla-bean gelato, a cold, sweet contrast to the bitter brightness of coffee.
You may not be blown away by the show in an open kitchen or elaborate architecture on the plates, as the case may be at newer restaurants.
These days, Vivo Kitchen relies on subtlety to carry what can be a lovely meal.
“I try to cook with as few ingredients as possible,” Mr. DiBattista said. It’s a style choice that’s too rare and too rarely done well.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.