Few are surprised that, in less than half a year, Vivo! Ristorante has established itself as one of the more refined dining spots in town. Its pedigree helps: Vivo! is the latest offering from Phoenix restaurateur Tomaso Maggiore, creator of Tomaso's and a long list of other local restaurants. After decades of managing popular Italian eateries, Maggiore, who opened Vivo! last fall at Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road, knows a thing or two about modern Italian cuisine, and has established himself as one of the best chefs in the Valley. His menus are intelligent, authentic, and light, his creativity built around tradition and tempered by good taste.
Maggiore's latest restaurant specializes in seafood, pastas, and wood-fired pizzas. Its more original conceits include a mozzarella bar and a handful of daring entrées (like eggplant torte, slices of eggplant baked with cheese fondue, and squidink "black" pasta with seafood). Upscale yet inviting, patterned after old-time, uptown supper clubs, Vivo! features a wraparound bar that separates booths from tables in a single large, open room. I like that Maggiore keeps his restaurant open during the no man's man's land between lunch and dinner, and that his wait staff has just enough attitude to suggest they know their stuff.
Vivo! meals commence with a plank of warm, crunchy, fresh-from-the-oven bread, drizzled in olive oil. Everything I ordered after, on an initial visit, was excellent. There simply was nothing to criticize.
Generously portioned, the antipasto-tagliere-charcuterie board provided a stunning start to my first Vivo! meal. All of the components were fresh and high-caliber: delicious nibbles of cured, dried soppressata, thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma, fennel-rich finocchiona salami, and Aurichio provolone and tender hunks of artichoke. An order of old school meatballs in marinara was a good companion dish: rich and meaty with ground steak and veal and aromatic with garlic.
Our accommodating waiter suggested the Margherita pizza as a shared appetizer; it came slathered in a tangy tomato-basil sauce and piled with mild bufala mozzarella. It was perfectly paired with the straight-ahead Caesar, its greatness expressed simply with a sharp housemade dressing that coated crisp Romaine with clean, cheesy flavors of Parmesan and whispery accents of lemon and garlic.
Equally tasty was the Sfincione, Vivo's signature pizza, fresh-baked thin crust topped with a medley of pecorino, ricotta, sautéed onions, and anchovy-infused olive oil.
From the specials menu, my companion and I tried a mixed grill platter of succulent rib eye, tender lamb chop, and deliciously spicy housemade sausage; all were expertly seasoned and cooked.
Each of these dishes was beautifully presented and worked well for sharing familystyle. And so, on a later visit, we started with the trio of homemade pastas, intended as an entrée but perfect as a shared appetizer. Ravioli stuffed with tender filet mignon were paired with sweet butternut squash tortelli and a tart spinach and ricotta ravioli, each wrapped in light, doughy sheets of pasta. It was a scrumptious launch to a meal that quickly fell apart as we dove deeper into the menu.
Frittura mista di calamari and zucchini was a bust. Skimpy on zucchini and heavy on superchewy, mostly flavorless calamari, its deep-fried batter was both brittle and greasy. We had to ask for a side of marinara and were sorry we did; it was runny and bland.
Soups were equally disappointing. Tuscan pasta fagioli takes the typical restaurateur's route of dressing up a peasant dish of white beans and tomato-based broth with too many vegetables. While the lobster bisque was nicely caramelized and generous with bits of diced lobster, its broth was on the thin side and, like so many of Vivo's dishes during this meal, wanted for salt.
The house salad proved a better starter, offering a toss of arugula, fennel, and endive with artichokes in a zippy lemon-olive oil dressing. A pinch of salt from the table once again livened up the salad's flavors.
The chicken parmigiani was rustic in its unpretentious presentation, and while the Parmesancrusted chicken breast was moist and tender, it also was largely flavorless, its breading soggy. The side of pasta was an equally unexciting spaghetti, under-dressed in red sauce that could have been hotter.
During an earlier visit, my waiter mentioned that Vivo! offers a bronzino on its lunch menu. This mild Mediterranean sea bass was briefly trendy a few years back; today, it's hard to find on most American menus. (The most wonderful bronzino, should you find yourself in either place, can be had at Café 422 in Warren, Ohio and at La Fille du Pecheur in Villefranchesurmer, France.) I asked for it at suppertime on a recent Saturday, and was happy to have my request kindly accommodated -- until it arrived. Served with profoundly under-cooked scallops, the fish came cleaned and oven- baked with nearly no taste of the sea, and puddled in a runny tomato sauce studded with stewed tomatoes. A side of freshwater clams was tasty and nicely tender, but served without a shellfish fork.
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Portions are small, but never inadequate. We forced ourselves to order dessert, eager to judge Maggiore's pastry chef's skills, and were not disappointed. The tiramisu was firstrate: moist, cakey ladyfingers and flavors of espresso, mascarpone, and chocolate played off each other nicely. The sea salt caramel gelato cake was also faultless, combining sweet caramel gelato with tart sea salt atop airy chocolate devil's food cake. Vivo! serves Lavazza espresso coffees, which always seem to have a hint of tea leaf in them, somehow. I'll have plenty of opportunities to figure out why this is (and maybe to complain about it, a little), as I plan to return to Vivo! again soon.
Vivo! Ristorante 6560 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale 480-699-9081 www.vivoaz.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday