A row of stools lines each of the large windows at the front of Vinnie's Pasta Bar. From the outside, it looks like just another take-away joint.
Inside it's warm, the air tinged with the scent of tomato. It's dim, almost dark inside. It's an easy atmosphere. Chocolate and caramel tones give an intimate-date-restaurant feel to the room, but paper-covered tables and relaxed chatter make it feel family friendly.
It's only 5:30 and there are a handful of free tables. A server bounces over, smiling, and tells me to pick any table. I wait for my two friends to arrive. When they show up no more than five minutes later, almost every table is full.
Simplicity defines Italian food: good quality ingredients that need nothing beyond basic cooking techniques to coax natural flavours into wonderful harmony. And simple is just how I'd describe the small, uncomplicated menu of pasta and pizzas at Vinnie's.
Calamari ($8) is instantly irresistible as an appetizer. Our entrees take more consideration, so our server---whose helpfulness and attention throughout the meal is worth mention---points out her favourites and some of the popular dishes in order to help us along, drops off a loaf of deliciously warm crusty bread and puts in our calamari order while we decide. We eventually choose the lasagna ($13), chicken basil penne ($13) and Sicilian sausage pasta ($12), with Caesar salad side-dish substitutions ($1).
There is perhaps no better first impression at a restaurant than tendrils of steam seductively beckoning you toward your first dish. And that's how the calamari arrives, piping hot, the battered rings covered in a chili tomato sauce. The squid is tender, not very crispy from the quick fry. The sauce has a bit of buzz from the chili and a dash of sweetness. By the time it's all gone, I am sure it is one of my favourite calamari preparations in the city.
The Caesar salads are presented as their own course. They're crisp and fresh, hitting all of the right garlicky and salty notes with the light dressing, heaps of bacon, parmesan and crispy croutons.
A rustic, homey dish, the meaty lasagna is huge in portion, with a thick layer of golden melted cheese on top. The bright acidity of the sweet tomato sauce keeps it from feeling too heavy, though I can't finish it all. While the bottom and edges are quite burned and overly chewy, I actually end up enjoying the charred taste.
The two pasta dishes are also delicious. The penne and rigatoni are cooked al dente. The chicken is beautifully cooked, the cream sauce on the chicken pasta rich and velvety with the sweet sharpness of basil. The tomato sauce with the sausage pasta has a darkness and smoky depth to it that makes it very different from the tomato sauce on the lasagna. There is a heady smell of chili, and the smokiness is delicious with the mix of thick-cut sausage and tender ribbons of bell pepper. I'm glad there isn't a "signature marinara" that they just dump on everything that leaves the kitchen.
We decide to wrap up the night with coffees ($1.75) and tea ($1.50), but at the last minute can't resist the strawberry cheesecake ($5) our server excitedly describes. Made in-house, it's light and fluffy with a mellow, silky cheesiness that is divine with the strawberry coulis drizzled on top. We're beyond full, but have no regrets.
Vinnie's is a restaurant with a chef that clearly likes to eat. There is nothing overwrought or complicated about it. It reminds me of small restaurants and family tables I've eaten at in Italy. It's simple: It's good.