A lifetime seems to have passed since the Golden Age of Erie Street and fine Italian dining in Windsor. The late 90s bore witness to a neighbourhood crawling with diners, drinkers, and bottomless pockets. A combination of factors led to an eventual decline, including, but not limited to, the September 11th attacks, tightened border control which resulted in far fewer American customers, the general economic downturn, and, more internally, incidents of greed and corruption.
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Nearly two decades later, Windsor’s Italian dining scene has simultaneously shrunk and spread itself out. Erie Street is less crowded – both in terms of people and in terms of establishments – than it once was, with only a handful of big players left, and several isolated Italian eateries have opened in previously unconventional pockets of the city. One such example is Vito’s Pizzeria located in the heart of Walkerville.
Vito’s bills itself as traditional Italian fare with a contemporary twist. In some ways, it accomplishes that. The easiest point of comparison for those who can remember is the old Spago’s Trattoria on Erie Street, long since closed. Vito’s imports many of their features: a wood-burning oven anchored and visible in the corner of the room, a lengthy list of pasta dishes, all contained in a relatively cozy, rustic interior.
Aesthetics aside, Vito’s inherited many other admirable traits from old Erie Street. Foremost among these is exceptional service. In my most recent visit, this was perfect at Vito’s, and this is often an element that most restaurants have a difficult time nailing down. The service is minimal but caring, helpful and polite but entirely uninvolved. It is never a focal point of the meal or a source of entertainment, it’s merely professional, knowledgeable, and attentive.
The drinks and wine list are also pretty good. The bar that extends the length of the eastern wall is a great place for solo diners to have a quick drink or private meal. The wine list has a small handful of interesting Italian varietals sold at a totally reasonable price point, and the cocktails are more than adequate as well.
The food, however, has some issues. The menu itself gives you an indication of how the dishes will be, which is comically over-sized and difficult to process in one sitting. The arancini appetizer comes with two pieces, and it’s the biggest rice ball you’ll never be able to finish. Because of its size, it’s difficult to appreciate all of the flavour it could have, and it starts to crumble apart like shepherd’s pie once you get into it.
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The “platto freddo,” essentially a charcuterie platter, is the only item I’ve eaten at Vito’s that is truly beyond saving. It’s lazy, bizarre, and overpriced. The Italian deli meats are nothing more than grocery store cold cuts, the cheeses are cubed, dry, and bland, and the crackers are clearly either straight Breton or a cheaper variation. And it’s served with a strange mix of vegetables in the middle that’s difficult to grasp or integrate with the smaller elements of the overall plate. In terms of quantity, it’s probably worth $15.99, but the components are too uninspired.
My main dish was the “pasta con polpetti,” which, upon arrival, delivers on the menu’s description: it’s a plate of Bolognese with one enormous meatball planted right on top. I have to say I love the concept, but they don’t pull it off. The pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente, and the sauce is pretty good, but a meatball that size is really difficult to make flavourful. And it isn’t. It’s cooked to an appetizing consistency, but it just tastes like meat cooked on its own, which is what it is. No amount of parmesan cheese or salt can resuscitate any flavour.
I do recommend trying some of the fish features Vito’s offers as entrees, as they’re usually done very well. I tried both ahi tuna and Chilean sea bass and was impressed with both. But I do not recommend hoping for much from the vegetable and potato sides that accompany them, because they’re either ice cold, unable to stand alone, or both. Ask for a side of pasta instead.
Having thin-crust pizza as an option for a middle course is definitely a huge draw for Vito’s. But like the meatball, it needs to be tweaked just slightly in order to cash in on its own potential. The options are numerous and appealing, but there are either too many toppings, or the pizza is six minutes undercooked. It’s still pretty great, but in a pizza city like Windsor, and in a restaurant dangerously close to the thin-crust capital, Caboto Club, it has to be better, and it can be. As it is, it literally flops over when you lift a piece from the plate.
The dessert course definitely exceeded expectations. Windsor is a city so saturated with tiramisu, even in non-Italian restaurants, but Vito’s still manages to make a good one. And I really enjoyed the tartufo as well, mostly because it dared not to be too sweet. You taste chocolate, not sugar, and with an espresso it’s a satisfying wrap-up to the meal.
A chef once said that you could learn a lot about a restaurant by trying their salads, as it gives you a good indication of what’s going on in the kitchen. That more or less applies at Vito’s. The salads are alright. The ingredients are fine, they’re just not combined in a way that makes them great. Vito’s is a great spot for a night out, and easily the closest thing to fine dining in Walkerville, but it’s not as good as it could be. It’s an homage to old Spago’s that makes you miss the original, as well as the place in time that birthed it.