Vinny’s Italian Kitchen keeps clientele loyal with classic food, ambiance
Flirting with the camera, chef Vinny DiCostanzo still charms crowds at his namesake restaurant.
Vinny’s Italian Kitchen retains the loyal clientele that two decades ago cemented DiCostanzo’s local reputation. Reborn in late 2020, Vinny’s resumed operations at its original east Medford location as though DiCostanzo and his wife, Gina, had never left. But venturing outside his comfortable milieu, the restaurateur recently stepped into the region’s television spotlight.
Airing Wednesday and Saturday evenings on Southern Oregon PBS, “All Across Oregon” is DiCostanzo’s culinary travelogue that celebrates family-run businesses. With ambitions to traverse the state and beyond, “All Across Oregon” is known not just for its subject matter, but the host’s humor and persona.
It’s that gregarious but gracious personality that wins over so many Vinny’s diners. The chef personally presents some customers’ dishes or confers with them over changes. The veteran staff uphold DiCostanzo’s ethic with a hint of irreverence that implies familiarity.
Indeed, Vinny’s has always trafficked in nostalgia, down to the decor — a carbon copy from 2000. Selling to his father, who closed the restaurant several years later, DiCostanzo was courted to come back to the Larson Creek Center. The space’s “four white walls” soon evoked DiCostanzo’s notion of an Italian nonni’s living room, every lace curtain and gilt picture frame intact. The antique replicas in fact display DiCostanzo’s vintage family photos.
Similarly, the menu harks to 1950s Italian cuisine made prominent in New York, where DiCostanzo’s family settled and operated several restaurants after emigrating from Ischia, Italy. The exhaustive lineup of greatest hits — lasagna, manicotti and cannelloni, just to name a few — is old-school also for its inclusion of soup or salad. This format that’s fallen from fashion distinguishes Vinny’s from competitors and translates to value for customers.
Vegetarian minestrone was an easy choice over salad to augment my entree. Usually enamored of appetizers, I didn’t want to start with a deep-fried item — zucchini, mozzarella or calamari. And garlic and pesto breads, as well as bruschetta, seemed redundant when Vinny’s provides complimentary bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping.
So my partner and I skipped down to the salad heading, from which I convinced him to share the “chop house” ($16) featuring cured meats brightened with sun-dried tomatoes. Other choices are Caesar, Greek and cranberry-walnut — each of which can accommodate chicken for an additional $3 — as well as a salad with pimentos, mozzarella, tomatoes and basil in homage to the island that DiCostanzo’s elders called home.
Such homey dishes as eggplant Parmesan and spaghetti with meatballs are the stuff of my own kitchen, directing my attention to Vinny’s fish and meat specialties. “Francaise” — prepared as either veal or chicken — enticed for its eggy batter and lemony pan sauce. But my preferences always lead back to pasta, linguine with clams ($19) being a longtime favorite.
My partner hoped to lure me with bites of his seafood ravioli in lobster reduction. Combining Maine lobster, crab and fish, the ravioli is the most expensive pasta dish — at $25 — on Vinny’s menu. For the same price, shrimp scampi, cognac prawns or shrimp in marinara over linguine are available.
Pizza, calzone and pasta that can be mixed and matched with more than a dozen sauces cover Vinny’s more casual and budget-conscious diners. Even gluten-free noodles are available for an additional $3 charge.
A shortage of ingredients, however, caused us to reconsider our choices. The server first notified my partner that the kitchen was substituting blue crab ravioli for lobster. Several minutes later, DiCostanzo approached our table to report running out of clams and extending an offer to prepare my linguine with scallops for no additional charge. I accepted.
The soup, with its spot-on temperature, signaled a promising start. The batch had simmered long enough for the vegetables to all but collapse, yet the flavors were so sweetly harmonious that I didn’t miss the ingredients’ texture, particularly when the chopped salad provided all that I craved.
Combining iconic Italian deli flavors on a single plate, the “chop house” wooed me in ways I never dreamed. The salami, capicola and bacon bits came on strong and savory, accented with morsels of briny Kalamata olives, salty feta and sweet sun-dried tomatoes. The lively greens were almost as juicy as the bits of orange bell pepper, which I fully expected to eat around but instead appreciated. Finished with lemon wedges for squeezing on top and generous drizzles of balsamic vinegar reduction — unmentioned on the menu — this stellar salad stood out from others I’d enjoyed over the past year.
The entrees, unfortunately, didn’t elicit the same enthusiasm. The scallops on my pasta were overcooked, likely because they were halved horizontally. Maybe DiCostanzo wanted to mimic the texture of clams, but I prefer scallops still translucent at the center, an indicator of tenderness.
The kitchen also may have aimed to compensate for the lack of lobster with a generous serving of sauce on my partner’s ravioli. But the rich, creamy layer was almost as thick as the pasta underneath, overwhelming it. So much sauce also started verging on salty. We could have enjoyed the dishes more with the glass of white wine our server neglected to bring until we had all but finished.
Palate-cleansing potential emerged in limoncello cheesecake ($10), although we wondered how much we’d transfer to a to-go box. The server, though, vouched for the cheesecake as being “really light,” venturing that we could finish it. He was precisely right, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our choice, weighed against such mainstays as cannoli and tiramisu.
Located at 970 N. Phoenix Road, Vinny’s is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. See vinnysitaliankitchen.com or call 541-772-3668.
Steampunk decor and locally distilled spirits are a dual draw to downtown Grants Pass.
Steam Distillery opened in late December at 505 S.W. G St., in a historical building adjacent to Climate City Brewing Co. House-made vodkas and gin headline Steam Distillery’s craft cocktails, paired with rice bowls and snacks.
Longtime Grants Pass resident Terry Hopkins and friend Scott Davis are partners with distiller Michael Blair. A U.S. Navy veteran, Blair is working on rum, bourbon, rye whiskey, single malt whiskey and an agave-based spirit to expand Steam Distillery’s lineup.
Distillery tours are available in the circa-1886 building, originally home to Rogue Brewing, Grants Pass’ first brewery, which foundered during Prohibition, said Hopkins. Climate City previously used the space for banquets, he added.
The beverage menu features twists on such classics as Long Island Iced Tea, Old-Fashioned, Tom Collins and Paloma, incorporating house-infused vodkas. A build-your-own seltzer option afford two flavored vodkas. Food items include ahi and salmon poké, crispy Brussels sprouts and cauliflower “Buffalo wings,” from $8 to $14.
Steam Distillery is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. See facebook.com/SteamDistilleryGP
Tour the world on a cheese platter at Grants Pass’ new Partake Shop & Lounge.
Open since mid-November at 111 S.E. G St., Partake combines retail stores for wines and cheeses with a bar serving wines, cocktails, light meals and desserts. The shops are open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, the lounge from 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Owners Scott and Patti Hillier wanted to inspire culinary learning and exploration — regardless of guests’ prior experience — in a welcoming atmosphere, said cheese shop manager Amelia Caldwell. Internationally focused, Partake aims to bring in the best from all over the world, rather than favoring locally made products that are more widely available, said Caldwell.
Charcuterie, cheesemonger’s, fishmonger’s and chef’s boards anchor the menu, also offering meat skewers, sandwiches, cheese and chocolate fondues, cheesecake and chocolate cake. See partakegp.com
Breakfast is the new bill of fare at Rogue River’s Hawaiian fusion restaurant.
The Millennial this week unveiled its breakfast menu, available from 7 to 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Egg dishes, including the island speciality “loco moco,” complement breakfast sandwiches, banana French toast, mochi waffles and fruit-topped oats and yogurt parfaits. Prices run from $4 to $14.
Open since February, The Millennial is at 308 E. Main St. See themillennialrestaurant.com
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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole.dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.