CLOSED - Vesuvio Italian Grille - St. James City

Vesuvio Italian Grille St. James City Pine Island Review

NOTE: - THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED

Perhaps it's the Sunday morning Soprano reruns I've been watching for the past few weeks. Or maybe it's those flashy commercials I've been seeing pop-up on the local cable stations. Whatever it was, I found myself heading out to St. James City on Pine Island to sample some of the food and service at Vesuvio Italian Grille.

Operated by Chef/Owner Giorgio Lanese, who previously owned Giorgio's Italian Ristorante in the Santa Barbara Center plaza in Cape Coral, Vesuvio Italian Grille has been plating up delicious dishes on Pine Island for over four years.

Vesuvio Italian Grille - St. James City Pine Island Review

Hidden alongside a quiet industrial park just off Stringfellow Road near Pine Island Center, Vesuvio is housed in a small and inviting building with ample available parking.

The interior of the building is dimly lit. They're reaching for a romantic and candlelit atmosphere and falling a few feet short of the goal. A small bar with a few seats, more of a service bar than anything else, is on the immediate left as you enter the front door. On the right are a host-staff podium and a dry erase board emblazoned with the daily specials. The dining area is one open room with comfortable booths lining three of the walls, and tables with less-comfortable-looking chairs in the middle. About half the tables were covered in white linen tablecloths.

The hostess was present and cheerful as we entered, immediately acknowledging us and welcoming us to Vesuvio. We asked for booth seating.

"There's only one booth left, and it's our 'skinny booth'," the hostess replied. "If you think you'll be comfortable, we'd be happy to seat you there."

We decided to take our chances with the "skinny booth", and found it to have plenty of room. Perhaps we're smaller than we look!

Our server immediately approached the table and welcomed us. She noticed we were looking over the wine list and allowed us a few minutes to make a selection. The wine list wasn't too far reaching, but offered a varied selection of mostly American and Italian vintages spread across a few different price points. We chose an entry level Ducarosso Chianti Riserva.

Large Bordeaux-style wine glasses were brought to the table immediately and all the steps of proper wine service were adhered to. We appreciated that the chianti was served a few degrees below room temperature. The happy hour wine we witnessed a neighboring table being brought was served in annoyingly small wine glasses.

After pouring our wine, the server engaged in a well-versed and knowledgeable spiel canvassing the menu and evening specials. She then left us alone for a few minutes to relax with our wine.

The dinner menu at Vesuvio is a sprawling multi-page affair with appetizers, salads, soups, pizzas, calzones, traditional pasta dishes, a section devoted to chicken and veal offerings, and a variety of steaks, seafood, and other specialties. Long-time readers will know that I'm not a fan of large menus...and I believe this menu is at the outer edges of what a small restaurant can capably handle. That being said, there was a lot more variety available on Vesuvio's menu than I expected to encounter -- so we'll chalk it up as a pleasant surprise.

After the server returned and adeptly answered a few questions about the menu for us, we made our selections. My dining partner and I chose to share the Calamari and the Caprese Salad. For dinner, my dining partner chose the Chicken Giovanni and I opted for the Baked Lasagna.

Some downright amazing freshly baked garlic rolls and ciabatta-esque bread arrived at the table slathered in oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese. They were fluffy puffs of bread we immediately tore apart and savored the cloud-like texture and authentic Italian flavors of. A signature triumph...and ridiculously free!

Before long, the Calamari was delivered. At Vesuvio, they fry the calamari until golden and then flash saute it with some olive oil, basil, lemon, and garlic. This unique squid technique really ramps up the flavor quotient while keeping the Calamari exquisitely tender and immensely enjoyable. The portion size was significant, as well. Job nicely done.

About two bites into our Calamari, the hostess arrived from out of nowhere and inexplicably dropped our Caprese Salad on our table. We were disappointed to see we were being rushed. Fortunately, our server noticed the salad on our table and apologized that it was brought out before we were finished with our appetizer. She removed it and apologized for the mishap. A little more communication among the staff members might cut down on these types of occurrences.

After we finished the Calamari, our Caprese Salad made its second appearance at our table...and if I'm speaking frankly, the salad was a letdown. Billed as "Mozzarella, Sliced Tomatoes, Red Onions, Basil, Olive Oil, and Balsamic Drizzle with Anchovy Garnish" -- all the elements were accounted for, but the heart and soul of any Caprese Salad, the Mozzarella, was overly firm and dry to the point of slight grittiness. Fresh Mozzarella should have a soft, creamy, and/or elastic texture, and this was just brittle. A shame, too, because otherwise the salad would have been a success. The tomatoes and basil were nice against the olive oil and tart and complex flavors offered up by the balsamic drizzle. The anchovy garnish added an extra level not usually seen in a Caprese Salad. If the cheese were up to snuff, this salad would have been a winner.

Chef Giorgio made every attempt to visit with his guests on downtime from his cooking duties -- I recognized him from the commercials.

Entrees arrived after the salad. Nice presentation and steam rising from both. They were delivered to the right people with no auctioning -- which may not sound like much, but so rarely happens nowadays in Southwest Florida.

My partner's Chicken Giovanni was sautéed with artichoke hearts, fresh asparagus, lump crabmeat, brandy and Dijon mustard cream all served on a bed of pasta. The separate components of the dish all blended nicely and it was large enough to necessitate a to-go container.

During my first visit to an Italian restaurant, I almost always order one of two things - either linguine in white clam sauce or lasagna. These are what I like to call "foundation dishes" and if an Italian restaurant can't get these right, then they've got no business being in business.

When the lasagna arrived the suspense was almost too much to bear.

I suspiciously turned the plate around and looked at it from all directions. The size was appropriate. The number of layers conformed to my expectations. The cheese and sauce presented well, in vibrant colors and sending forth pleasing aromatics. They say that scent information is stored in long term memory and has strong connection to emotional memory because of the olfactory system's close anatomical ties to the limbic system and hippocampus, areas of the brain that have long been known to be involved in emotion and place memory. The scents coming off this lasagna brought me right back to the Sunday gravies of my childhood. Visions of family, good food, and convivial conversation flooded my mind...but I had an important job at hand and needed to push this petty nostalgia aside.

I armed myself with a fork and pressed it into the tender flesh of the submissive lasagna. Once I had isolated a bite-sized piece from the goo of melted cheese, I raised the fork to my mouth and put the sample to the test. Soft. Creamy. Nice balance between the nutty sweetness of the cheese and the tart acidity of the sauce all on a canvas of freshly made pasta. This will do! Not a ground-breaking lasagna, but certainly a worthy competitor in the battle for authentic old-school lasagna. Bravo.

We finished our meals and declined dessert - although I did spy an attractive looking dessert tray making the rounds. I do appreciate that our server did not press the dessert issue once we had politely, but firmly, declined.

All in all - I am granting Vesuvio Italian Grille a rating of Recommended with Reservations. The issues were minor and the good far outweighed the bad. I think next time I visit Vesuvio, I'm more apt to lean towards some of their Italian style fresh fish offerings, as that seems to be the strength they're working from based on what I saw at other tables. If you've got Italian on the mind, have a penchant for fresh ingredients, or just want to take a ride out to Pine Island - give Vesuvio a try. I'm sure Chef Giorgio will do his best to make you a great meal.

Vesuvio Restaurant on Urbanspoon

-- writing and video by Eric Taubert

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