Review: Via Vino in Frontenac

Via Vino, 10427 Clayton Road, Frontenac, 314.569.0405,

Michael Del Pietro’s latest offering, Via Vino, comes not only on the heels of his wildly successful Sugo’s Spaghetteria, it’s joined at the hip. The adjacent restaurants are located in a sliver of a strip mall just west of Le Château Village and across from Plaza Frontenac. Where Sugo’s is all Italian, casual and raucous, Via Vino is worldlier, more refined and … just as raucous. But while Sugo’s dishes out large quantities of pasta and pizza, Via Vino bills itself as an enoteca, an Italian concept of a wine-centric, bistro-inspired eatery or, as the Web site states, “a contemporary wine bar with global cuisine.”

The menu focuses on small plates (cold and hot), salads and a handful of large entrées, delivering familiar favorites with a few original touches. A standard seared yellowfin tuna is given new context: Slices of bright red soft tuna rubbed with five-spice powder atop same-sized crunchy slices of cucumber provides a study in contrasts; squirts of spicy Thai sriacha sauce provides brashness. More a consort than a peer of wine, the dish requires consultation from the bar; a glass of 2007 Laetitia Californian Pinot Noir held up fine to the dish’s spiciness. A plate of crushed ice holding six cold and briny Blue Point oysters served on the half shell is as fine a way to start the evening as any. The accompanying Mignonette sauce of sherry vinegar, white wine, shallot, cracked pepper and a douse of the juice of the freshly shucked mollusks makes for some fine slurping.

It seemed a little early in the season for an off-the-menu plate of “softies,” two soft shelled blue crabs simply breaded and fried, atop a smattering of diced asparagus and delicate rosemary-shallot scented broth, but I wasn’t about to deny myself a taste of spring, no matter how premature. And, yes, a glass of white Burgundy sufficed with these little beauties. Assorted bruschetta arrived four to a plate, neatly arranged in a row, spilling over with tapenade, eggplant, tomato-basil and pesto and showered with grated Parmesan. Your visit may bring a different arrangement, which, too, will not disappoint. A small plate of tagliatelle is in a porcini mushroom broth, aromatic with warm spice (nutmeg?) and made even earthier with healthy slices of truffles. Pair it with bruschetta and a salad for a well-rounded, lighter meal.

Yes, the Del Pietro salad – first served in 1976 at the original Del Pierto’s restaurant – is available. Order it if you must, but we found the salad of roasted beets, frisée and fried goat cheese far more interesting, though at $7, the two half rounds of cheese and four thin slices of beets seemed a bit miserly.

The five entrées come right out of the comfort food playbook, except perhaps the Chilean sea bass we eschewed due to overfishing. There’s grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and bouillabaisse, but we settled on the double-cut pork chop and steak au poivre, the former a baseball mitt-sized bone-in chop made for gnawing served slanted against a mound of mashed potatoes mixed with a few roasted apples and the latter a medium-rare New York strip with a mountain of tangled pomme frites. Both benefited from a good char crust. For the price, both could have used at least a token vegetable.

As a wine bar, Via Vino does fine. As an enoteca, it could use more wines available by the glass and smaller pours to allow broader sampling. The well-chosen wine list features French and domestic varietals and blends, including 23 available by the half bottle or split representing new and Old World styles – something more restaurants should do.

Sometimes it’s the little things that distract the most. Serving good bread (from Companion) with insipid, tasteless olive oil should be grounds for something. The spinach salad suffers from tasteless, out-of-season strawberries (though the pancetta vinaigrette makes up for the disappointment). A generous conviviality fills the room, but the sheer popularity of the place means it can be lively to the point of insanity. An eclectic group of diners were enjoying themselves despite the out of control soundtrack: Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull, Seal, Black Eyed Peas and Michael Jackson. Too bad the music isn’t as well-chosen as the wine list.

The ever-changing dessert lists includes tiramisu, light yet rich and creamy, but otherwise desserts like lava cake, crème brûlée and carrot cake are standard issue. Except when one of the bartenders makes a blood orange pound cake, luscious and light, with honey-soaked blood orange compote or a chewy chocolate-almond torte topped with almond whipped cream. That’s some bartender.

Where: Via Vino, 10427 Clayton Road, Frontenac, 314.569.0405,
When: Mon. to Thu. – 5 to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 11 p.m.
Don’t Miss Dish: Tagliatelle pasta with porcini mushroom broth and truffles; double-cut pork chop over garlic mashed potatoes and roasted apples.
Vibe: Affluent people of all ages; dizzying din.
Entrée Prices: Small plates: $6 to $14; large plates: $18 to $26.