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IT'S THE DREGS

Even a restaurant that set up shop in the Sistine Chapel and employed Capuchin monks who devoted their lives to serving others would eventually have to rely on the quality of its food to keep it in business. You can only drink in beautiful scenery and subsist on sheer subservience for so long--at some point, you have to stomach what comes out of the kitchen. And, brother, if the food's lousy, a restaurant doesn't have a prayer.

The hand of God is about all that's missing from Vino Vino's decor. Sandwiched between a ceiling of clouds and an intricately painted floor are warm, marbleized walls; in the periphery of one wall, a strangely placed gas-log fireplace hangs like the glowing, watchful visage in Dali's "Hallucinogenic Toreador." High above the tables, set on faux balconies made of wrought iron and strewn with faux ivy, are numerous TVs tuned to subtitled Italian films. Occasionally they show scenes that hit closer to home: the faces of diners who stop to peer at the fig-leaf-covered genitals of the two statues in the hallway near the bathrooms. Peek under a leaf and a camera flashes your mug across all of the TVs in the dining room--it's your fifteen seconds of fame.

When it opened last year, Vino Vino enjoyed a much longer stretch of popularity. Word of mouth on the wacky but charming setting spread quickly, and expectations were high given Vino Vino's pedigree: The Italian eatery had taken over the old Ruby space attached to Cliff Young's, and it's owned by the same company, Nine Kids Corporation. But by now the crowds have dwindled considerably; on three separate occasions, including peak dining time on a Friday night, I never saw more than four tables occupied at one time.

Service isn't the problem--Vino Vino's waitstaff is efficient and friendly. Painfully so, in fact. It's excruciating to watch these waiters and waitresses smile as they present some of the most poorly prepared dishes I've encountered in any of the town's "fine dining" establishments. These are unfailingly nice people doing a very good job of pretending that everything at Vino Vino is okay and that the meals they cheerfully carry out are worthy of their support.

But they're not.
The primary person responsibile for Vino Vino's cucina is executive chef Giovanni Graziano, who was born John Graziano in Boston but underwent a name change after eight years with the Peterson group (which used to own Simms Landing and H. Brinker's, along with the Off Belleview Grill, where Graziano worked until this past year). The recipes at Vino Vino are his, as is the menu roster that's equally divided between traditional American versions of Italian dishes and riskier ventures that would give diners a true taste of Italy--if the kitchen could actually pull them off.

Sadly, Vino Vino can't seem to handle even the simplest items. This was apparent from the start of my first visit, when an order of insalata mista ($3.95), or "mixed salad," brought a mound of greens drenched with a mouth-puckering vinaigrette and bearing none of the promised Asiago cheese. The menu had also listed "Italian olives" as a main feature of the salad, so I certainly expected more than the three wrinkly old ones I got--but at least they were there. I couldn't find any of the Italian sausage that was supposed to be a key ingredient in the pasta e fagioli ($2.75 a bowl); otherwise the soup was passable, with the requisite pasta and beans plus a lot of tomato lumps.

There was nothing redeemable about the fettuccine carbonara ($8.50), however. The pasta was so squishy and overcooked that it had turned the "garlic cream sauce" into milky dishwater, in which floated too many peas, too little prosciutto and no fresh basil at all. It wasn't as though the kitchen had been saving up the herb for the pesto tossed with linguine ($8.95). In a sorry display of stinginess, a scant two tablespoons of pesto had been plopped in the center of linguine dry enough to knit into a sweater. The mixture didn't taste like either garlic or basil; tossing linguine with plain olive oil--and not much of that--would have resulted in the same dish.

I tried to talk a fellow food writer into coming along on my second visit, but this was one free meal he wasn't buying into. "No way," he said. "You can't make me go back there." So I went alone, and believe me, misery would have loved company. This time I took on the linguine puttanesca ($7.95), which amazingly beat out the pesto linguine for the Smallest Amount of Sauce on Pasta award. What sauce there was did feature anchovies, capers and olives, but the anchovies were only slightly less dry than the linguine and the capers hadn't been rinsed well, so they added a lovely saltiness to the salty olives and the salty anchovies. If the kitchen conceived of this entree as a way to sell more wine, it worked--I found myself drowning the sorrowful meal with several glasses. Fortunately, Vino Vino has a sensibly priced wine list that includes a decent selection of Italian wines. But after all, the restaurant is named Vino Vino. The wines are chosen by a group of folks led by Nunzio Marino, the impeccably professional general manager who also manages Cliff's next door.

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