Friday, March 1, 2013

Cabernet Franc Saves The Night


We hadn't been to Vitello's Restaurant in a while, so Denise and I were taken aback by the new look at what was once a tried-and-true, old-style Italian-American eatery in the San Fernando Valley.  The restaurant was sold quite a while back, and the owners apparently took their time about making changes.

The changes they made to the old Rat-Packy restaurant really brought it into this century.  Gone are the red leatherette banquettes.  Gone are the old straw basket Chianti bottles.  Also gone, unfortunately, are the old recipes.

The very modern-looking redesign is nice enough.  Muted green fabric has replaced the red leatherette, the tablecloths are gone, swanky music is piped in through the sound system and there's a tree in the middle of the main room decorated with tiny white Christmas lights.  I suppose, since they are now used year-round nearly everywhere there is a tree in Los Angeles, that they are called "decor lights" or something like it.

The trouble is, some of us are clinging to the few remaining old-line, East Coast-style Italian restaurants with a death grip.  They are disappearing, these old haunts, and it's hard to see them slip away one by one.  If the ghosts of Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Bishop should materialize in Los Angeles, they will now have one less place to "try the veal."

I don't know whether or not the recipes at Vitello's were a part of the deal when the place sold, but even if the previous owners took the cookbook with them it should have been easy to find a new one.

Miso dressing on the chopped salad tastes OK, but it should be Italian.  The garlic bread doesn't look like garlic bread.  It's dark toast, with a lot of stuff on it besides butter and garlic.  Garlic bread isn't broken.  No need to fix it.  The chicken cacciatore, I don't even want to think about any more.  I don't know what kind of sauce was on it, but it wasn't tomato.  It seems as if the food is prepared by people who don't know what Italian-American food tastes like.  It's on par with the kind of cuisine one gets at an airport.

The food wasn't the end of the trouble, either.  Between the salad and the entree, our server was instructed to kick us off our two-top so it could be placed with a four-top to accommodate a larger party.  I don't mind moving, but I don't recall a restaurant ever asking me to do so.  Our server - who apparently knew a lot more about the restaurant business than the owners - was obviously mortified.  She offered us several different extras, on the house, which we politely declined.  She did take 20% off the check for our trouble, however.

Even so, we didn't feel that our dining dollars were very well spent.

With all that, at least the wine was good.  Vitello's wine list seems to be the one thing that changed for the better.  There are quite a few interesting choices by the glass, and a good number of bottles from which to choose.  It's a bit unusual to find a Cabernet Franc by the glass on a Los Angeles restaurant list, so I was happy to find it there.  Of course, their customers who liked the old cheap Chianti and cheap Pinot Grigio may not be too happy about it.

Napa Valley producer Cosentino is responsible for the Cab Franc that saved the evening for me, although it's not a Napa wine.

Cosentino's 2011 Cabernet Franc carries the Lodi appellation and a 14.3% alcohol number.  The grapes are 76% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Merlot.  The wine spends 20 months in oak - French and Hungarian - a quarter of which are new barrels.

The familiar Cab Franc spices and herbs grace the nose, while a beautiful green edge touches the blueberry and cherry flavors. There's a surprisingly light touch of vanilla and clove.  The wood is used to really great effect in this wine.

Hopefully, Vitello's can breathe some life into the food service the way they have done with the wine.  Until then, for me, it's a stop which will be reserved for happy hour only.


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