Venue Review: Vivace Italian Restaurant
The Charlotte Observer
1100 Metropolitan Ave.
Vivace (vee-VAH-cheh; "lively" in Italian) hits you right away with its urbane cool.
The place makes its own 'cellos - as in the Italian liqueur limoncello flavored with lemon, but also creating limecello and orangecello - and bitters, and puts them to exquisite use in house cocktails.
These include the Mojito Italiano (limecello, fresh mint, soda) and Miscela di Agrume ("mixture of citrus": orangecello, lime, soda and pomegranate juice).
It makes its own ricotta in-house, and serves it with a vivid lemon marmalade.
But the food, on several occasions, has been bereft of flavor, much less liveliness.
There are exceptions. The pizza is lovely, and at a good price: thin, crisp crust and great flavor combos, such as a four-cheese with caramelized onions and portobellos (each $10). Salads have verve, while cheeses and salumi come with chestnut honey, marmalade and mustard - a good presentation.
Meatballs as a first course were quite brightly flavored and fine-textured, so I would not hesitate to order spaghetti and meatballs as an entrée. And a prosecco panna cotta was terrific for dessert.
But pasta? Lackluster: Ricotta gnocchi were leaden and oily, with chunks of peaches with no taste at all; fettuccine with mussels overcooked; four-cheese ravioli heavy and dull.
Entrees? Hanger steak and braised short rib are paired, and though their side of green beans was beautifully roasted, the steak had been cooked well beyond juiciness and the rib lacked the lushness that has won the cut a place on so many menus. Veal saltimbocca was much too wan to "jump in the mouth," as its name suggests. Tuna lacked both good texture and any discernible flavor at all. But lamb chops disappointed the most: exceedingly poorly trimmed (easily half fat, for $26) and easily outshone by accompanying roasted vegetables - this technique, the kitchen does exquisitely.
It's an odd combination of difficulties. It's not as simple as poor execution of good ingredients (nothing could have helped that lamb) or the reverse (since the fettuccine should have been fine).
The place has the airiness and sparkle you'd want in a midtown destination: paneled walls of wood, enormous light fixtures and luxe booths, a view of uptown (plus outdoor seating and valet parking), and an upstairs (with both elevator and attractive staircase). Wine is paid attention with a handsome storage wall and a region-based Italian list, though servers vary on their ease with that list.
Vivace is a sibling in the Urban Food Group of restaurants, based in Raleigh. Kevin and Stacey Jennings have the original Vivace there, along with Porter's City Tavern and Coquette. Kevin Jennings said business in Charlotte built more slowly than it has for other ventures, but the restaurant is thrilled with the start. He says it's walking the fine line between having a serious food menu and a "fun bar side."
I would say Vivace has shown early strength in the second area. It is its seriousness that must be proven now.