When Sam DiBattista opened Vivo in Bellevue, his multicourse, creative Italian menus quickly became a draw for diners all over the city, especially those that loved BYOB restaurants.
Vivo didn't slip, but the city and trends changed and many more restaurants opened. A drive to Bellevue became a harder sell, and the lack of a liquor license (Bellevue is dry) always frustrated Mr. DiBattista. On Feb. 19, after nearly 11 years of business, the DiBattista family announced it was closing Vivo to re-imagine the restaurant. It will re-open as Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley this summer.
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
2 stars = Very good
1 1/2 stars = Good+
2 stars = Very good
565 Lincoln Ave.
- Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday, 4-11 p.m.; Saturday, noon-11 p.m.
- Basics: An eclectic, casual neighborhood bistro with a wide-ranging creative menu that inspires frequent visits.
- Recommended dishes: Grain salad, snails, asparagus with foiellandaise, roasted beet with charred onion pesto, pork cheeks, vegetarian bread pudding, steak frites; chocolate pot de creme, ice cream soda.
- Prices: Small bites, $3-$8; salads and soups, $4-$11; sandwiches, $6-$12; big bites, $10-$15; sweets, $5.
- Summary: No wheelchair accessible restroom; credit cards accepted; reservations suggested but not required; BYOB, $2 per wine bottle, $1 per beer.
- Noise level: Medium-loud.
Even Vivo's most loyal customers have good reason to embrace the move. While the new Vivo hasn't opened, by April the DiBattistas had filled the Bellevue space with a new restaurant: Bite Bistro. Sam DiBattista is still the executive chef, but chef de cuisine Mike Cutright is the primarily force in the bistro's kitchen, and the DiBattista daughters, Danina and Martina, have taken on ownership roles in the new venture.
They replaced a destination restaurant with a neighborhood spot, but one special enough that a drive to Bellevue is once again in order.
Small plates, which could as easily be named appetizers, are diverse and interesting. Crimini mushrooms were lined up next to a generous dab of herbed polenta that spooned up like grits. Tender snails were nestled in a pile of sautéed chard and a rich red pepper cream sauce, the soft textures and mildly sweet flavors a surprisingly successful combination. A single roast beet, crusted in warm spices and set on a bed of tender beet greens, was dressed with a tart, charred onion pesto, like the charcoal edge that brings out the richness of a steak.
Vegetarian options were plentiful, but there's nothing ascetic about this food, full of robust flavors and textures. The same enthusiasm for vegetables, as well as spices and vinegars, appears throughout the menu.
If pork cheeks are available, order them. Braised until fork-tender, sprinkled with coarse salt, then dished with tart roasted tomatillos and an orange sweet potato puree, this plate inspired reverential pleasure.
A grilled salmon filet with a crisp edge and a meltingly tender middle was well matched by a nutty, mixed grain pilaf and thinly sliced, pickled shiitake mushrooms. A light, clean corn jus added moisture and just a touch of summer sweetness.
Even a simple grilled vegetable and grain salad conveyed a sense of opulence, the grilled sweet green peppers, summer squash and roasted tomatoes mixed with perfectly cooked whole grains and legumes such as rye seed, oat kernels, lentils and wheat, perfumed with cardamom and drizzled with a syrupy balsamic reduction.
Much of the menu feels almost virtuous, but there are a number of dishes that lean heavily on richer ingredients, like savory bread pudding, an exemplary vegetarian entree. Sharp cheddar, caramelized onion and a spiced tomato sauce were threaded through the soft, eggy base. A roasted green tomato slowly collapsed on top of the free-form pudding, while a stripe of roasted chile sauce added just the right amount of heat.
A classic BLT was augmented with a thick layer of jumbo lump crab meat. This sandwich will taste all the better in August, when tomatoes shine.
Bite Bistro gives foie gras the respect it deserves, well-balanced by a bit of whimsy. A play on French toast was the perfect showcase for both the balanced sweetness of real maple syrup and the exuberant richness of the duck liver, the slice of toasted sweet bread the perfect vehicle for soaking up every last bite.
Savory applications were even more creative, like an asparagus and pea shoot salad with foie gras-hollandaise (foiellandaise, in the vernacular) and a spectacular summer spaghetti threaded with sweet corn, mushrooms and tender greens and sauced in espelette-spiced foie gras butter.
The kitchen's enthusiasm for experimentation and the frequent menu changes will invariably produce a few duds. The cleverly named "nasty bits" on a recent starter menu consisted of two chicken carcasses that had been roasted then fried to crisp up the bites of meat, served with a miso jus and a few pieces of toast. While the meat near the bone is absolutely the most flavorful, the amount of labor involved in extricating it seriously undercut the pleasure of eating.
The steak frites, on the other hand, were all pleasure, no work. A hangar steak (sadly, a touch overcooked) was cut into thick slices and surrounded by a mess of potatoes, sliced paper thin and fried in pork fat, like a cross between a frite and a potato chip. The plate was drizzled in a sticky, almost caramel-like, house-made steak sauce, a spectacular combination with the salty, savory meat and fries.
While fries will never be health food, potatoes fried in pork fat are no better or worse for you than those fried in other oils, and these had a delectable crispness.
The dessert menu was a touch uneven, but its best offerings ended meals on an exuberant gleeful note. An ice cream soda was an ideal way to explore the restaurant's lengthy list of specialty sodas in flavors ranging from root beer to orange cream to cucumber. The chocolate and strawberry-rhubarb versions were both excellent.
Stick to vanilla gelato for the soda, then order the daily, creative flavors on their own. A corn and brown butter version was particularly successful, the sweet corn ice cream drizzled with melted brown butter that pooled at the bottom, and hardened into rich little nuggets.
Skip the banana bread and berry bruschetta, which was oddly austere, and the poached pear stuffed with mascarpone -- poached pears are almost universally better in theory than on the plate. Instead, order at least two of the chocolate pots de creme, a perfect construction of rich chocolate cream topped with a thin layer of caramel and a brilliant sprinkling of gray sea salt.
Along with all this great food, you'll find pleasant, intelligent servers with real enthusiasm for the restaurant.
I do have one substantial quibble. The space was made over quickly, and the turquoise walls and framed pop art smiles, while bright and lively, aren't the best reflection of the restaurant's new identity. The hanging incandescent bulbs, lovely and romantic in Vivo, are now simply obstacles to the menu, which is already a little hard to read.
Servers encouraged diners to stand wherever they needed to to read the menu, described dishes that we couldn't quite see and valiantly attempted to make it all seem less awkward. Hopefully in a year or so, there will be time and capital for an update.
In the meantime, I'll simply say bravo to the DiBattista family, to Mike Cutright and to the rest of the staff, for their creative, delicious food, their passionate commitment to the neighborhood, and for demonstrating that change can be a very good thing.