Murillo's new venture is located in a large, historic house that has seen its share of restaurants: Eli's, Castaldi's, and most recently, Zanzibar Hardwood Grille. During an earlier point in its life, this building was a boarding house where author Carson McCullers began writing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Murillo is third generation Italian who grew up in the countryside of Ecuador. He arrived in Charlotte in the late 1990s after a stint in a Miami kitchen. "My grandparents were from Italy," he says. He learned to cook from his grandmother and mother, but considers his mentor and teacher a Sicilian native who owned a restaurant in Ecuador where he worked for a few years.
"My philosophy in cooking is you have to get knowledge all the time. I describe my food like this: I like to put my personal (touch) into the cooking and try to be very original. I think my style is leaning more towards northern Italian, but still have much of the South, and some dishes are more Americanized," Murillo comments.
Old houses lend themselves to small charming rooms and secluded kitchens. Vittorio's is no exception. The restaurant, which currently seats 90, has an additional 40 seats on the side patio and a second floor which can be opened in the future. In the front is a small, glass-enclosed porch with hanging baskets of artificial flowers and a clutch of tables. Interior rooms have fireplaces, which were not lit, and appointments that are haphazard. Empty wine bottles line some walls and mismatched furniture says budget. A large Roman-style mural fills one dining area wall while multi-themed prints and photographs are scattered throughout the restaurant. Tables are covered in linen but topped with plastic tablecloths, and the silverware does not have that substantial feel nor the size that many newer restaurants choose. But the prices are not shy. Entrees range from $10.95 for rigatoni with spinach, peas, and sun-dried tomatoes to $24.95 for a grilled veal chop.
Vittorio's is not your nonna's home-styled, traditional cooking Italian restaurant. For starters, the marinara sauce has a herbaceous kick to it. Murillo notes this sauce is his grandmother's recipe and a closely guarded secret.
For Murillo, it is a long day. He makes everything, which you may agree is a bit ambitious when tasting the olive bread. Rarely have I met a chef who can master bread, pastries, and entrees. Besides isn't crusty rustic bread a necessity with Italian dishes? How else can you scoop up and savor the different sauces? Why bother with balsamic and oil on the table?
Many of the items on Vittorio's menu are the Chianti-flask favorites with a twist: lasagna bolognese, veal sambuca, and a list of chicken breast items. But the touchstone tastes of housemade mozzarella and tomatoes, and Italian bean soup are here as well as a dozen or so large portioned pasta dishes.
We started with the tender black mussels bathed in a spicy basil and wine sauce. Next up were the tender cuts of calamari in his secret recipe marinara. Both dishes cried out for scooping bread.
Murillo's strength is in his entrees. The ever so thin veal scaloppini had a soft explosion of shiitake mushrooms muted by a delicately finished Madeira sauce. This dish was, however, plated in the old style 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock, and 4 o'clock arrangement with a serving of carrots, green beans, and broccoli hanging at the 10 position. Another bankable main course was the Gamberetto Portofino. Here the capellini was ringed with an abundance of tender shrimp, then dotted with capers and feta and sauced with a lemon butter -- a great dish.
After the large portions of the entrees, you might opt to skip dessert, which would be a good thing since the desserts are both massive and overly sweet. The tiramisu was piled with yards of mascarpone cheese and covered in ground cinnamon. The cannoli fared better, but not by that much.
The lengthy wine list focuses on Italian selections, which is great, but there is a shortage on the lower price end. This is a major flaw which should be fixed, especially given the economic climate and the fact that Italy makes tons of great wine in this category.