We went to celebrate a special day at Vito Restaurant in Santa Monica last Sunday evening. Instead of celebrating, we found ourselves wading through a meal of homogenized Italian food from which the life had somehow been extracted. What Vito claims is traditional Italian cuisine tasted like shortcut Italian-style dishes cooked by a bored kitchen that was unfortunately not nearly as capable as Vito's attentive but not intrusive serving staff.
Wife began with Mozzarella Marinara, a two-inch square of the cheese breaded, deep-fried, and napped in tomato sauce. It was pleasant, though the breading was heavy (think KFC chicken) rather than the wished-for tempura lightness. Its sauce was unsprightly. I had a very ample plate of roasted peppers, tomatoes, and anchovies on a bed of sliced onions. The menu says "fresh roasted peppers" but these were cold and rather limp, probably from sitting quite awhile in the (good) olive oil which was abundantly spooned onto the plate along with the peppers. I have had this dish elsewhere (usually warm) many times; elsewhere it's been delightful.
We moved on to split portions of pasta. Wife had Penne Arrabiata, which was gently peppery..period. It did not sing of herbs, mushrooms, garlic, or anything much else. It was more like an unseasoned cooked tomato sauce that had been pureed. It possessed a strong familial resemblance to what had been on her Mozzarella Marinara--and also to what was on my Spaghetti Bolognese. That was inappropriate and unexpected. The Bolognese was like her Arrabiata, minus pepper but plus cheese and a tiny amount of ground meat. At a restaurant of this price level one should expect individual preparation and trueness to the cuisines of very different regions, but that's not what I was tasting.
For mains, wife had Sole; I had Veal Parmigiana. The ingredient quality was good and the quantities were ample but the flavors were muddy. The sole was covered in a lemony sauce that tasted like a thinned Hollandaise. Again the frying, this time of the sole, was indelicate, and again the red sauce on the veal was strangely familiar. Both dishes rapidly became monotonous. They were accompanied by an ice-cream scoop of smooth, slightly garlicky mashed potatoes and some freshly-cooked, oil-doused mixed vegetables. Both plates had these same sides. We skipped dessert.
I should note that this is not a particularly inexpensive restaurant. Most appetizers are between $10.50 and $12.50; pastas are between $15.50 and $19.95; most main dishes are between $19.50 and $25.
Though we had intended at the start of the meal to have wine, we ultimately chose not to. The wine-by-the-glass prices were $10.50 to $11.50, which I felt to be inordinately high once we heard our server describe several mediocre wines. Several more wines were described by varietal name only, something like "We also have a merlot and a cabernet by the glass." Queried, he could only provide the varietal name, not its maker or year. There also was a long book-style wine list with very few wines under $40. The list had one or two bottles between $25 and $30, but they were unappealing choices on a "bargain page". The list did have an abundance of choices well above $100! If those wines had actually been available and unspoiled, I would say that they would have greatly exceeded the quality of our dinners at Vito Restaurant.