Sam DiBattista has a simple philosophy. He likes the focus to be on the food and let it speak for itself.
The owner/chef of Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley has a simple way of executing that philosophy — using minimal ingredients that are locally available.
- Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
- Prices: Starters: $6-$14; mains: $19-$46; desserts: $8-$8.50; split plate fee; $12.
- Sound level: Constant hum of conversations.
- Details: Full bar with signature cocktails, wine by the glass and beer in bottles and cans. Wheelchair accessible. Parking available on street and in lot.
- Wild card: The chef’s selection of vegetables, served with the main courses, are creative and feature unsung ingredients such as kale and green lentils; carrots and quinoa; and butternut squash and celeriac.
“Today in the industry, people are adding more and more to the foods. I’m taking the opposite path,” he said over the phone. “I use whatever I have. This way, I keep the produce fresh, and my customers taste the vegetables and meats for what they are.”
So one night the meats are served with a butternut squash and celeriac, and on another the squash is paired with rutabaga.
Simplicity also is pronounced in the decor, which is Mr. DiBattista’s brainchild. The linear space in the dining room is refreshingly spare. Tall windows in the front welcome in the natural light during the early part of the evening. Two eye-catching horizontal artworks made with old record albums add a splash of color to the otherwise stark wall and emphasizes the length of the horizontal room.
Tasteful-looking lights emit a soft glow and make the room feel cozy and intimate. But this also means that the far corners of the room are almost dark — diners at a neighboring table resort to using a cell-phone flashlight to read the menu.
When he closed his restaurant, Vivo, in Bellevue and moved it to Sewickley as Vivo Kitchen in 2011, Mr. DiBattista recycled the marble table tops to create an elegant marble bar top. Wine bottles are stacked neatly above the bar area, which is in step with the minimalist sleek setting.
The spare, clean concept extends to the menu that is divided simply into starters and mains.
We started with the nicely charred shishito peppers ($8) that are simply flecked with flaky Maldon salt. Neither insipid nor outrageously fierce, the peppers taste how they should in a perfect world — just clean. Dolce Gorg, a faintly sweet Gorgonzola nestled amid an assortment of pan-roasted earthy mushrooms ($9), bridges the haute and humble.
Some cultural combinations are unexpected but not outre. Smooth and luxurious foie gras ($9) melts the second it lands on the tongue, and when it’s combined with a knockout onion-apple chutney on a house cracker, it casts a spell. Pillowy soft pork meatballs ($7), immersed in a hot pepper cream and topped with a blob of chevre, are not for the timid but must be had. The sauce’s lip-smacking spiciness lingers, making the last bite as good as the first.
Delicate condiments are the backbones for the butter lettuce salad and grilled shrimp (each $9). The salad, which is showered with grated Grana cheese (a close cousin of Parmigiano-Reggiano) but scanty on the walnuts, gets its depth from a buttery truffle vinaigrette. The shrimp is cooked with precision but is a tad salty. But that fades when it’s dipped in a creamy, dreamy cilantro-lime aioli.
Even though it has the potential star power with fresh burrata, tomato and arugula, the nongreasy flatbread ($8) falls, well, flat. The flavors don’t want to get along with each other, and the plate is left crying for something more.
The El Salvadoran-style tortilla, pupusa ($6), isn’t as exciting as it’s described to be. It’s heavy on the corn dough and light on the more flavorful ground-beef filling, citrus-spiked clump of red cabbage slaw and creme fraiche, and the corn base crumbles even as a fork goes through it.
Simple seasonings and clean flavors continue to make their way in the main courses, which is all about meats and seafood.
Crispy whole chicken with fried garlic ($19) showcases an amazing interplay of textures. The small whole bird, which is first roasted and then flash-fried, is shatteringly crisp on the outside and succulently moist inside. It’s crowned with a small mound of crunchy fried garlic and sits on a bed of carrot-quinoa salad. Neither get in the way of the chicken, yet both are brilliant co-conspirators. On cleaning up the plate, except for the bones, my friend remarked: “I wonder when I can come back here for I really would like to try that again.” And I wholeheartedly concur.
A smear of the unrelenting red pasilla chili paste adds an honest-to-goodness touch to the tender buffalo strip steak ($35), which is thick and juicy with the flavor of the meat coming through with every bite. On the other hand, a dollop of piquant red wine mustard made with grape must isn’t enough to disguise the chewiness of the lamb loin chops ($32). Both meats come with a side of butternut squash-celeriac cubes; its color vibrates off the plate.
Mr. DiBattista said he wants to make sure his customers taste the fish in the Alaskan halibut ($32), and he carries through on his word by treating the firm fillet with drizzles of olive oil, flakes of salt and a good squirt of lemon juice. Every forkful evokes the fresh ocean breezes and salt-seasoned air. The kale and green lentil salad under the fish also is brightened with the simple seasoning.
Desserts are familiar. On my first visit, I order gelato ($8.50) and get a scoop of malted chocolate chip, Oreo and vanilla. They make a case that the best place for the Italian dessert is not at an ice cream shop. So on a second visit, a couple of days later, I opt for it again. But this time, I get only the chocolate and Oreo ($8), and I am told brusquely that if I want the vanilla, I need to order the coffee-based affogato separately.
A velvety amaretto creme brulee ($8) is the lord of luxe. Salted caramel cheesecake ($8) comes in a small jelly jar and has the salt and sweet in balance. But the flavor of the cheesecake is muted by a thick foamy head of whipped cream.
Vivo Kitchen fits the description of what a classy neighborhood haunt should be like. It’s friendly, cozy and honest.
Mr. DiBattista makes it a point to come out of the kitchen a couple of times in the evening to talk to diners, and another member of the wait staff doesn’t rush through answers or hesitate to offer opinions on a busy evening.
Then there’s the simplicity in keeping the flavors and ambience clear and pure — an organic way of welcoming someone to the neighborhood.
Arthi Subramaniam: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @arthisub.