When I walk into an Italian family restaurant and there's an entire wedding party sitting at a long table, the bride in her long white dress, the cake waiting to be cut, it's impossible not to think of Tony n' Tina's Wedding. The rest of the night at Vino's did nothing to dissipate the feeling of being surrounded by an extended clan of well-wishers.
Owner Kathleen Cangianiello seemed to know the name of everyone else in the small dining room, greeting them before going back to pouring wine behind the bar and hustling menus. Her husband, Tony, was back in the kitchen cooking. That's the way it's gone since 2006. The place was packed, partly because they open only three nights a week.
We settled in for an evening of conversation, wine and food. After finishing with delightful slices of cake – Cangianiello's, not the couple's – I felt like part of la familia.
In fact, the wife-and-husband duo have their motto printed right on the menus: "Welcome to the family." The dining room was decorated like a festive living room, a tree of silver globes behind the bar, and small trees encrusted with mirrors disco-ball-style on the tables. There was white paper covering the tables, and Sinatra on the sound system. Alcohol is limited to a dozen wines at $6 glass, $29 bottle.
It's a small menu, not a sprawling multipage tome, suitable for a small restaurant with a small staff. There were seven appetizers, three salads, three vegetables and 14 pastas, plus specials. Fresh Italian bread was delivered with packets of Land O'Lakes butter.
Every family has their own recipes, and does the standard dishes their own way. At Vino's the menu informs customers that the meatball appetizer ($7.95) hearkens back to the chef's childhood, departing from the norm with additions of raisins and pine nuts. The extra texture and moments of sweet fruit added another dimension to an often mundane dish.
Another off-speed pitch in the appetizer lineup that caught my fancy was steak a la Vino ($9.95). Two slender slices of filet Mignon were sautéed and served on garlic toast with garbanzo salad. With the bread picking up juice from the medium-well steak and the nutlike texture of the chickpeas, marinated with onion and tangy with vinegar, it was a surprisingly successful beef-and-bean snack.
Bruschetta bread ($5.95) topped four pieces of baguette-sized toast with fresh diced tomatoes and basil marinated with extra virgin olive oil and garlic. It left an impression of freshness, especially of fresh garlic, which was so plentiful it overpowered everything else.
Though I prefer grilled rustic bread and less raw garlic firepower, I'd take it every time over the "bruschetta" served at chain restaurants, topped with tomatoes chopped last week and a grudging pinch of garlic powder.
Stuffed peppers ($7.95) here are the usual long semi-spicy chiles, filled with a cheese and sausage mixture. The peppers were fine, delivering a warming lick of heat, but the filling was pasty.
Vino's includes lots of the regular hits and a few outliers, like pasta con sarde ($14.95). The mixture of sardines, anchovies and garlic was a surprise favorite, its forthright briny seafood celebration making me wish for a dockside café in sight of fishing boats.
Lasagna ($11.95) was a solid version, with layers of ground beef, mozzarella, ricotta and plenty of Romano dusted over bright tomato sauce.
An eggplant special ($15.95) was a construction of crumbed and fried eggplant, mozzarella and tomato sauce. The light-handed dish didn't drown its star in tomato and cheese, letting the eggplant flavor punch through.
Pesto ($10.95) was dimly flavored, more like the faded memory of summer basil than the fragrant ideal. A side of spinach with garlic ($6.95) was half-cooked, with some leaves wilted and some still raw, leaving it watery.
Dessert was a delight, thanks to Kathleen Cangianiello, who, having apparently cloned herself, handles daily baking duties as well. The coconut layer cake was an acme of airy sweetness with sweetened coconut filigree.
The flourless chocolate cake, which melted like butter in my mouth, could have been spread on toast, happily. Fudge banana layer cakes, carrot cake and peanut butter fudge bars were all solid. (All desserts $4.95.)
If you want to visit, plan ahead. The restaurant is open for dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and will be closed Dec. 31, and Jan. 1-10.
Vino's charges Olive Garden prices for real Italian cooking, made by a real Italian family. You can even have a lovely piece of cake made by the lady taking care of you. If you ever wished you had an Italian mom to feed you dinner, Vino's delivers everything but the hug.
Vino's – 7 plates (out of 10)
Where: 1652 Elmwood Ave. (332-2166)
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Closed Sunday through Wednesday
Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$9.95; pastas, $10.95-$15.95
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Parking: in the lot.
Gluten-free options: salads, steak a la Vino's.