As Daring As It Can Be Disappointing, Vespa Still Survives On Style
Sometimes a restaurant can get by on good looks. An ace ambiance, a flair for presentation, and an overall aptitude can lull a diner into a state of complacent contentment. Still, it’s essential to put the palate to work, and no self-respecting restaurant, even a corking little spot like Vespa would ask less of us.
The 8-year-old Federal Hill café was buzzing on a recent weekend night, with a crush of hungry, hopeful diners gathered in the tiny waiting area. The dining room always has great energy. There’s a grown-up, big-city feel about the sleek but warm materials, the almost-too-close positioning of the tables, and especially the glorious hum of conversation. The menu is sensibly considered, offering only a handful of big-ticket entrées, along with build-your-meal selections of pizza, pastas, and hearty appetizers, and everything sounds like something you’d want to eat right now; ingredients like Gorgonzola, pancetta, and fennel pop off the page.
We ordered ourselves the small antipasto ($9/$12 for a larger version) while we pondered the wine list and menu. A smart move. Dramatically arranged around a central pile of prosciutto were succulent cloves of balsamic-infused garlic, meltingly creamy fresh mozzarella, snappy caperberries, zippy eggplant caponata, an herby chickpea and roasted-pepper salad, and sun-dried tomato bread. Served with a basket of warm focaccia and herbed dipping oil, a large antipasto would make a nearly perfect drop-by meal on Tuesday nights, when bottles of wine are half-price. Our only reservation: The sweet balsamic treatment for the garlic cloves seeped under the other offerings, unsettling the balance between the plate’s savory, spicy, and sweet flavors.
Things out of balance turned out to be the theme of the evening. Dishes stopped just short of fully satisfying because they either wanted more of an essential (and top-billed) ingredient or were nearly overwhelmed by an ingredient that should have been singing backup. A lovely fennel and fresh herb salad ($7) was hand-dressed with a perfect little vinaigrette, for example, but I had my heart and palate set on some heavy-duty fennel action.
On the other hand, too much rosemary sprinkled between layers of prosciutto and a tender juicy pork cutlet knocked the sense out of a strikingly handsome pork saltimbocca ($18). Because the rosemary was layered unevenly, some bites were full of it, some not so much, but its powerful aroma bothered every mouthful. Too bad, because the pork and prosciutto were top-drawer, and the accompanying gnocchi divine.
One highlight was an appetizer of sambuca- and coffee-cured salmon generously slabbed over toasty, garlicky bruschetta, and underpinned by creamy mascarpone cheese ($8). A companion thought that the bruschetta was perhaps too flavorful and detracted from the salmon’s nuanced flavors, but even he accepted this particular instance of excess. He wanted much more flavor, as did we all, from the rigatoni with duck ragu, woodland mushrooms, and rosemary ($16), which fell flat. The muted sauce would have been the perfect modest counterpoint had the duck itself been gamier, greasier. Similar hesitations for a pan-seared red snapper ($21). All of the ingredients were there—a smart Sicilian sauce of cured olives and capers—but the fillet was far too thick and bulky to have been pan-seared properly. As it turned out, the fish arrived dry and tough.
On a weeknight return visit to Vespa, we made dinner for two of a couple of salads and a shared pizza, with similar results: not enough anchovy bite to a bountiful Caesar salad ($6); croutons subbing for bread in an octopus and panzanella salad ($7); a pizza topped with choice ingredients (spicy sausage, red peppers, golden raisins, and mozzarella) that weren’t fully integrated with the delicious crisp crust.
Some of the judgment calls at both meals were fairly close; some, as with the snapper entrée, not. But always counteracting the disappointment was a sterling sauce, a daring attempt, a confident and engaging waitstaff. Vespa remains a special expectation-raising place, and even while being intermittently disappointed, there is often a kind of pleasure. Flaws of commission are the best kind.