Redo the Right Thing
Restaurant Makeover Season Continues At Mount Vernon Italian Bistro
The latest restaurant to put itself under the designer’s knife is Viccino, now named Neo Viccino Bar and Grille (1317 N. Charles St.,  347-0349). It’s the highest end in Jay’s Restaurant Group, a hard-working restaurant and catering concern that plies most of its trade—Jay’s Deli, XS Café, and the newly redone carry-out adjoining Neo Viccino—on the 1300 block of North Charles Street.
A vague memory of having once eaten at the original Viccino recalls innocuous Italian bistro fare, good enough as a pre-symphony option but not quite worth a planned visit. Plus, it was an ugly place. Not bad-taste ugly, which can be fun, but no-taste ugly—e.g., carpeted darkness—which is just soul-robbing. A remodel sounded like good news.
Neo Viccino is a pretty city bistro, but it’s still a little soulless. Gleaming wood floors, a nice paint job, advantageous lighting, and black-shirted waiters are all new, but as makeover subjects always hear—you have to feel it from the inside. It’s a nice room to sit in, though the booths have a little pizza-parlor crampiness. What’s dispiriting is that this dining room could be anywhere, a feeling reiterated by the timid menu, so minutely calculated simply to satisfy at the expense of challenge and delight.
Quite simply, the food wasn’t that good. Sometimes it was just good enough to make Neo Viccino a viable, affordable Mount Vernon dining option—the menu, surprisingly, is less expensive now than it was. Sandwiches, add-on-your-meat salads, and one-person pizzas are available on the dinner menu, all reasonably priced—a burger goes for $8, the pizzas hover around $7.50.
And you can find, here and there, the potential makings of a satisfactory meal. A grilled salmon fillet sandwich ($9), served with a choice of side dish, didn’t quite fill out the untoasted croissant on which it was served, but its honey mustard coating was smartly applied on the fresh-tasting fish. The chosen side, mashed potatoes, was served in an unappetizing public-school scoop, and the presentation overall was flat. A three-mushroom pizza ($7.50), with good gooey mozzarella, made for a pleasant shared appetizer. A thinner, more flavorful crust would make it more than that. The evening’s best offerings were a plate of precision-treated fried green tomatoes ($4.50, served with a dreamy aioli sauce) and tender, meaty baby lamb chops with mint jelly ($7.50).
The grilled romaine salad ($5.50) was troubling. Described as “a half-head of charred romaine,” it arrived in separate, barely warmed leaves and was sent back. (The kitchen, we were told, believes that overgrilling slops up the leaves.) When it returned, it was truly delicious, the wilting leaves only then accepting the flavor from caramelized garlic and shaved Asiago. That autumn standby, the pear salad with walnuts and Gorgonzola ($7), looked a bit wan here—the pear sliced too thinly, the cheese crumbled too minutely—to grab a diner’s attention. And the Caesar salad ($5.50), although the dumbed-down version—absent gritty cheese and anchovy flavor—was crispy and cool.
If some dishes lacked distinction, others were distinctly bad. Neo Viccino’s crab cake sandwich ($14.50, including a side) is nicely priced, but something better would be worth a higher price. Well seasoned, granted, but what a mushy mess—it fell apart on the bun, exposing a mass of thin, shredded meat. (And it costs nothing to toast the kaiser roll.) After picking thin slices of sausage and a few bell peppers (prep note: please roast them) from a plate of fettuccine and peppers ($9), there was no pleasure in slogging through a huge pile of boring marinara and noodles.
It was something very small—a side of Belgian french fries—that pushed the entire experience into negativity. Served niftily in a paper cone (this stuck into a metal holder), these were not only not a good facsimile of the usually crisp, salty, and oily Belgian fries—they weren’t good at all, with a limp, out-of-the-bag blandness.
Looking for some new style, it feels Neo Viccino has lapsed on the substance. And instead of being grateful for a new affordable dining option, I found myself wishing it would raise the prices and the culinary stakes.