Lil Vinny? Not exactly. In truth, Vinny Migliore is 30 years old, stands 5 feet 9 inches tall, and weighs 170 pounds. By my book, that's not so lil. But the nickname distinguishes him from his uncle, Big Vinny, who owns a restaurant called Vinny's at Night where five different Vinnys (three relatives and two friends) once worked. There's also a Baby Vinny (that's Vinny's wife's cousin). With the Vinny family tree dissected, let's focus on Lil Vinny himself, a lifelong Somervillian who made what has turned out to be a savvy roll of the dice when he opened his namesake restaurant in Magoun Square with his older brother Tony just over three years ago. Magoun, between Ball Square and Winter Hill, isn't much to speak of now, and certainly wasn't much to speak of then -- just a mishmash of gritty bars, tiny businesses, and traffic. Gradually, though, it's undergoing a renewal of sorts that Lil Vinny's helped anchor.
The restaurant replaced a rugged tavern that needed a radical facelift before it was fit to serve food. The white-brick, sparsely windowed building still hints of its past life as a gin mill, but the onetime barroom is now a dimly lighted, unexpectedly classy Italian restaurant with black tablecloths and pretty bisque-colored walls. The decor changes often, thanks to Josephine Migliore, otherwise known as Mom. "Every year she decorates according to the season -- a pilgrim look in the fall, poinsettias and mistletoe at Christmas," Vinny said. "She gets a little out of control, but I'd be in trouble without Ma."
Credit for the excellent food is all Vinny's. His specialty is hearty, muscular cooking with deep, dark sauces, like belly-warming osso bucco ($18.95), a wintry meal of meaty veal shanks and root vegetables in a robust gravy of beef stock, marinara and merlot demi-glace, and outstanding beef bracciola ($9.95 lunch, $18.95 dinner), a steak that's pounded, braised, rolled sparingly with provolone and prosciutto, and sauteed until it's so tender it unravels at the touch of a fork.
The stuffed eggplant ($14.95) is a masterpiece -- a huge portion of thinly sliced eggplant layered with Romano, mozzarella, spinach, and roasted red peppers that's somehow light as a cloud. Meatballs ($4.25 sandwich, $8.95-$11.95 with linguini) have great beefy flavor and contain lots of egg that makes them very soft. A roasted pork chop ($14.95) is so monstrous we laughed out loud. It's actually a double center-cut chop heaped with vinegared bell peppers and hot banana pepper rings bursting with tang. The meat is very moist, but also bland, probably because it's too thick for the vinegar to do its magic.
Attentive readers may have noticed that some entrees are slightly above the Cheap Eats price point, reaching into the high teens. A few items, like rack of lamb and filet mignon, inch above $20. But most dinners hover around $15, and no lunchtime dish is more then $10.95. In other business: a new CVS across the street has a municipal lot open to restaurant patrons, so don't waste time scouting for street parking.
Back to Vinny. This is a guy who really loves cooking. At age 3 his toys of choice were pots and pans. At 12 he was working at his uncle's deli. At 14 he was preparing four-course meals for his family. In college, he studied culinary arts, acquiring a sophisticated touch in the kitchen. He sautees broccoli rabe ($6.95), for example, in rosemary-infused olive oil that's so rich we mistook it for butter. And we were sure his superb minestrone soup ($2.95-$3.95), made with sundried tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, broccoli, and zucchini, was splashed with cream. Nope. Romano cheese creates that luxuriously creamy taste and texture.
He also knows when a dish calls for a delicate hand. Haddock ($8.95, $15.95) is sauteed in a light, vibrant blend of garlic, olive oil, white wine, lemon, butter, shallots, and clam juice, a mixture that lends a citrusy note without overwhelming the simplicity of the fish. Chicken Ashby ($12.95), a creation of Vinny's cooking partner, Merle Ashby, combines hunks of sauteed chicken breast, prosciutto, and artichoke hearts in a surprisingly unheavy basil tomato cream sauce. And the greaseless potato pancakes, a side item, are ingenious; they're dry-sauteed and then baked, using no oil whatsoever.
When it comes to ambience, Lil Vinny's successfully melds casual and formal, making it equally appropriate for large groups, families, and couples on an intimate dinner for two. Maybe the all-welcoming aura has something to do with the statue of the Madonna near the entrance -- the one that reminds you, in case you forgot, that you're in Somerville.
Breaking character, we didn't order dessert, but only because none of the sweets were made in-house. There's usually homemade tiramisu, but it wasn't available for awhile when things got "Christmas crazy," Vinny explained. Now that the holidays are over, we hope it will come out of hiding.
All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining Sugar & Spice 1933 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. 617-868-4200. The menu at this spiffy new Porter Square storefront runs through the best that Thai cuisine has to offer -- coconut-rich curries, char-grilled meats, spritzed salads, and more. Everything works here, from the carefully prepared and artfully presented dishes to the fun retro decor and excellent service. Vegetarians can request truly meat-free entrees; separate veggie-only woks, broths, and sauces are used. (1/1/04, D.T.)
The Butcher Shop 552 Tremont St., Boston. 617-423-4800. Barbara Lynch, the acclaimed chef and owner of No. 9 Park, opened B&G Oysters Ltd. recently and now this restaurant, which really does have a butcher shop in the back. This place serves as a bar and lounge for the oyster shop, but you can also eat some spectacular meaty dishes here, including a charcuterie plate and panini on Sel de la Terre breads. Seating very limited. (12/25/03, S.J.)
The Wright Catch at Uncommon Grounds 575 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown. 617-924-9625. Regulars flock to this cafe/seafood/Italian restaurant that tries to be many things to all people. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. What works: a cinnamon bun or corn muffin and latte for breakfast, thick roast beef sandwich with sprouts and fresh rollups for lunch, broiled bluefish or grilled scallop kebob for dinner. The friendly service, clam chowder (ask for a fork), and homemade cookies (and apple crisp, when they have it) keep this place swimming. No liquor license, yet. (12/18/03, N.K.) Primavera 289 Walk Hill St., Roslindale. 617-522-1186. It's not sleek and chic like the cluster of hip restaurants that have cropped up in Roslindale Square in recent years, but don't go to Primavera for the ambience. Go for the high-quality home-cooked food, including super-garlicky grilled chicken pizza, tender veal parmesan, and excellent chicken broccoli ziti. (12/11/03, S.P.)