SEA WORTHY Vito's hamburgers are good, but our critic really loved the ahi tuna burger, featuring a
great piece of sushi-quality fish lightly dusted with wasabi.
This column often deals with good ideas gone wrong. Vito's Tavern, in yet another proof of subatomic symmetry, is a cascade of bad ideas gone largely right. We start with chef/owner Damien DiPaola, who gave us Damiano, and small plates of, you know, Italian food. He follows that up by declaring that what the North End really needs is a good . . . burrito place.
Sure, like Paris needs gourmet popcorn.
He gives up the burrito concept because, reportedly, he couldn't find a space "small enough." DiPaola then decides that the one thing the North End really lacks . . . is a proper sports bar.
Just as so many find Newbury Street one Walmart short of perfection.
Additional pre-opening press suggested the chef had a thing for Korean food and wanted to work that in as well. Italian-Korean fusion? Hmmm. Getting closer to the big day, I read about DiPaola's idea of "combining American comfort food with Italian classics." And Vito's current Web site describes a meeting of the old and the new North End.
So what we have here is five (five!) really bad restaurant ideas, all rolled into one incongruous room (which, as the chef/owner confesses in our sister publication Stuff magazine, happens to be named after a pet bulldog). Might as well put Habitant pea soup, Yankee pot roast, and Kobe (Bryant) beef sliders on the menu while they're at it.
But after three visits to Vito's, I'm charmed, and by what I usually despise: the sports-bar part. For one thing, the room is small enough (pace Jerry Remy's — my other favorite in this category) that you could actually talk a little sports with someone sitting nearby. Plus, there are enough properly placed television screens that you can see the game well from every seat in the room. "Sports bar" also focuses me on beer, burgers, and fries, which is never bad.
The basic French fries (served with burgers, or as a side for $4.99) are skin-off, thinner than a pencil, and nicely crisp and salty, yet still with some potato flavor. You can buy them with truffle salt if you want to go up a social notch, or the other way with chili, Velveeta, and bacon as "gavone fries" ($7.99). A gavone, in dialect, is a boorish Italian-American immigrant, with connotations of overeating. Sweet-potato furikake fries ($7.99) don't work for the usual reason: sweet potatoes don't deep-fry well. The Japanese seaweed-based seasoning is restrained. Generally on this menu, mentions of kimchi and such are not to be taken as serious warnings.
On to your basic cheeseburger ($10.99), an above-average bar burger (and all burgers reviewed were exactly done as ordered). The menu says nine ounces, but you can actually pick up this entry-level model and eat it. By the time you get to "the Fifth Flavor" ($12.99), the burger, thin slices of sautéed shiitake, Parmesan wafer, tons of tomato, and high "everything" bun make for a tower that has to be impaled with a small steak knife to stay up, and that you can't possibly open wide enough to take a bite of, unless you are a python — or a total gavone. So you take a second steak knife and fork and go to it. The reference is to the Japanese "fifth flavor," umami, or completeness. I liked it, but I loved the ahi tuna burger ($13.99) — a steak of sushi-quality tuna done rare like tataki, with just a dusting of wasabi and flavorings— even more. How often do you get a first-class piece of fish in a sports bar?