My friend D. had a moment of truth a few weeks ago when her photograph appeared in the newspaper. "I'm getting fat," she said. Was it rude, then, to invite her to dinner? And worse, to an Italian restaurant? No problem: We would go to Vito's to try their lower-calorie menu.
Vito's looks like what used to be called a man's restaurant: It's dark and clubby, wood-paneled, filled with fat, cushy burgundy leatherette booths, bookshelves, oil paintings and bric-a-brac. No reed-thin design here. It's familiar with its spanking-white linen, real waiters--and traditional Italian cuisine with lots of butter, olive oil and cream.
Had we been mistaken? Were they no longer serving "light" meals? We bit into crisp garlic toasts soaked with olive oil and asked our high-spirited waiter. "You want the Pritikin?" he said, reeling off the no-fat, no-salt pasta, fish, chicken and salad of the day. "And maybe," he gracefully said looking down at the remains of our oil-drenched bread, "you'd care for the Pritikin toast."
The other toasts appeared. Translucent apricot-colored tomato puree had been gently spooned onto crunchy Italian bread. We preferred the caloric to the skinny cousin, but thought a steadfast dieter would be pleased to have any alternative at all.
Listening to the brisk sounds of a Caesar salad being whipped up at the next table, we nibbled on our far more Spartan lettuce, cabbage and carrot salad perfumed with balsamic vinegar and followed this with a whole wheat pasta with mushrooms, parsley and no salt. "Do you feel deprived?" I asked D. "Not at all," she said, "this is terrific. Have you ever had whole wheat pasta this good?" Frankly, I hadn't. Whole wheat pasta is hard to cook and Vito's gets it right, simmered in a de-fatted chicken stock.
Later we learned that we could have requested almost anything on the menu prepared in a "lightened" version, and that the special Pritikin menu was not the only alternative. But that night we went through four courses of intensely pared-down cuisine. (None of this information is printed on the menu. You simply have to ask.)
Ingredients have to be particularly fresh and timing must be impeccable when one does away with the masks of sauce. Boned and skinless chicken cacciatore was very tender, enlivened with red, green and chili peppers and scallions and a light tomato reduction. Our waiter grated fresh pepper with such a theatrical flourish, we didn't miss salt or olive oil at all. Although the broiled whitefish, dotted with a thimbleful of minced onions, was very fresh, it was also very plain. By contrast, the accompanying bright green string beans and angular orange carrots looked electric and tasted pleasantly sweet.
Our waiter bounced by, poured our mineral water and offered us fresh raspberries for dessert. "Unless you want the cheesecake," he said. "Lots of the dieters come here, order the Pritikin menu and then get a couple rounds of drinks. What can you do?" Thank you, the raspberries, we said. Sweet and plentiful, served in a giant goblet, who needed any cream?
Another day we lunched in the back room, also outfitted with low lighting and comfortable booths as well as a large fish tank filled with giant carp. "Special of the day," our waiter joked. The lunch menu includes nine different "Deliziosi e leggeri" entrees ("light and lovely dishes prepared without oil or butter") that are not nearly so Spartan as the Pritikin fare. Most of the tables were filled with businessmen who looked as if they paid as much attention to cholesterol charts as they did to bottom lines.
Pasta came in man-size portions. Rigatoni and crunchy steamed broccoli was heady with garlic and light with Parmesan cheese. The fettucini primavera with zucchini, mushrooms, bits of broccoli and carrots and peas, was gently bathed in the slightest bit of cream. A large bowl of steamed seafood (it sounded better in Italian-- "Bollito misto di mare" ) came filled with New Zealand mussels, baby clams, large shrimp, tender squid and a potent garlic and clam-base broth. We ordered the grilled chicken with pesto sauce, curious to find out how one could make a pesto without oil, but were served the simpler skinless, boneless broiled chicken breast by mistake. So pink and tender, yes, but with nothing but a scant dust of parsely, ho hum.
What's for dessert? Raspberries again. We ordered the ricotta cheesecake, made on the premises, and each had one extraordinary bite. It's glorious lightness counters a thin, dense bittersweet chocolate base.
Even if you're not worried about the way you look, you might try asking the chef to prepare lightened renditions of the normally caloric food. Then, if you decide you must have the spaghetti carbonara after the no-oil and Pritikin toasts, you can always have raspberries for dessert.
Vito's, 2807 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. (213) 450-4999. Lunch Mondays-Fridays. Dinner Mondays-Saturdays. Closed Sundays. Valet parking at night. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. Lunch for two: (food only) $20-$40. Dinner for two (food only): $40-$75.