Fab Concepts Inc. may be responsible for a slew of relatively new bar/restos in town, but to date they have wowed more with their ability to execute fine design. Included in the their portfolio of stylin' environments are Liberty Village's Brazen Head, Against the Grain, next to Sugar Beach, and the Mill Street Brew Pub in the Distillery District.
But their second instalment in Liberty Village, Bar Vespa, is an all-around winner. In fact, waiters are so sweet and gooey you might want to forego
dessert. For all its calculated "casual" appeal, few in this category of eatery deliver top-drawer service like this, even for something as typically ordinary as bread. We've all seen how olive oil and balsamic have practically replaced butter at the table. (Although real Italians would shudder at the thought.) But how many places first sprinkle a dried mix of oregano, rosemary, thyme and red pepper on a plate before dramatically pouring a nicely grassy oil over it? And with Fred's Bread for dipping? Dear Lord, why is this the first time I'm seeing this?
Bar Vespa also makes all its own sauces, including one with a brightness that can only come from San Marzano pomodoros. Top that with homemade all-beef Vespa meatballs ($10) and you have one terrific value meal. A shame the suppli ($8), Rome's answer to Sicily's arancini, are only noteworthy because of their huge portion; as it stands, stuffing them with bland-ish Fontina cheese does little to impart much flavour. A pungent Gorgonzola or even Parmesan for a sharper taste contrast may have worked better here. And if all else fails, add salt.
One would think that the addition of meatballs, this time with a blend of beef, veal and pork, would lend some rich flavours to the broth of a wedding soup ($6). But either the flavour has been boiled away or this kitchen shuns the simple magic of salt and pepper. But it's back to brilliance with a panino, not exactly the type of sandwich worthy of oohs and aahs. But with only four staple ingredients that include mozzarella, prosciutto, basil leaves and a drizzling of extra virgin, the Il Milano ($13) is a brow-raiser. One bite is all it takes to tell you it's the best sandwich in town. And its accompanying trio of parsnip, sweet potato and potato matchstick frites makes perfect only that much more perfect-er.
Pizza too entices with eclectic options: sunchoke puree, roasted sliced potatoes and fennel, not exactly the toppings you'd normally see on traditional Neapolitan pies. And the chorizo sausage pizza ($14) (out of its casing for a pleasant change) plus roasted red peppers and rapini makes this 4 star-worthy. Even something as pedestrian as chicken Vespa ($13) (read chicken parmigiana), with a nicely browned crispy bottom, delicate breading, moist meat and more of that terrific tomato sauce, illustrates just how a classic like this never goes out of fashion when done right.
BV also impresses with a variety of homemade pastas that include spaghetti carbonara ($14), linguini pesto ($14) and butternut squash ravioli with a sage and butter sauce ($14); predictable menu selects perhaps, but so lovingly executed. And the fact that polenta doesn't arrive sliced out of a package earns them bravos. Yet even topped with Gorgonzola, the too-huge portion of the homemade cornmeal is a trifle dull. Instead of just sprinkling it with Gorgonzola, try folding in the cheese-and don't forget the wonders a dash of salt can do. Plus, a shallow serving bowl might prevent it from congealing so quickly.
One look at a homemade lemon panna cotta ($6) and you might think it was a failed Home Ec class project. But don't judge this whipped cream Jello by its cover. It might seem a bit limp on the plate, but it bursts with vanilla and candied orange, and sports the right gelatin jiggle. Another best in town entry.
No one is more surprised than I to find out that Bar Vespa is doing something extraordinary. With its five-star service, neighbouring restaurants like Cinquecento Trattoria better start upping its game if it aims to compete in vibrant Liberty Village. For food, service, ambience Bar Vespa sets the bar pretty high. Oh yeah, and free pop refills, too. Now thatsa value!