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That said, I like Vinino. The place has a lively energy and a top-notch serving staff. During my lunch visit, that included the cheery Bruno, who patiently put up with Kelly's numerous food issues (he hates garlic, onions and God only knows what else) and directed him to the dishes that wouldn't offend his sensibilities. Kelly's superb tomato-and-fennel soup and grilled panini sandwich were part of a $9 "lunch flight" that combined a cup of soup, a Caesar salad, and the choice of a half-panini or a half-pizza.
Richard opted for the giardino sandwich stuffed with olives, goat cheese, peppers and mushrooms, and a cup of that day's soup, a soothing beef-and-barley brew.
Because I don't believe in half of anything, I went for a full panini — the Margherita version, with tomato, mozzarella and an oregano-tomato jam. "It's kind of sweet," Bruno warned.
"I like sweet," I told him. And I liked the pesto aïoli sauce, for dipping the crispy pommes frites even better.
Though the food isn't as rewarding as at Lidia's, just nine blocks south, or as lustily hearty as at Mike Garozzo's place, eight blocks to the north, three of my fussiest friends agreed that executive chef Jeff Heyde and consulting chef Marshall Roth have created an appealing assortment of bocconcini, salads, soups and pizza. When Ned, Carmen, Sarah and I went to Vinino for dinner (we paid for valet parking, and it was worth it), we didn't order any of the baked pastas because the less-traditional choices sounded a lot more enticing.
Ned worried that the place had delusions of Lidia's when our server brought out a glass tray containing a mound of hummus, a puddle of olive oil and an olive tapenade and another waiter plunked down a tiny wooden box packed with slices of "artisanal bread." It's a variation on the opening act at Lidia's, but the tapenade was addictive, and imitation is the best kind of flattery, right?
We were impressed with the grilled calamari, served cold and tossed in an arugula pesto that needed a little more kick — something like the punch delivered by "angry" prawns chilled in a fiery peppery oil, mint and dill.
"The herbs are really, really fresh," said Carmen, who nearly fought with me over the last slice of excellent tuna crudo — raw fish seasoned with sea salt, shaved fennel and grilled orange.
We'd also composed a bruschetta, which is a build-your-own affair here. Ours worked well: focaccia crisps slathered with goat cheese, artichoke, chopped tomatoes and basil. And I loved the Vinino take on a Caprese salad: a hollowed-out fresh tomato stuffed with milky mozzarella.
We shared a few other salads. The pickled-beet number with pine nuts, warm goat cheese and spicy arugula, splashed with a sassy shallot vinaigrette, was the most elegant use of the lowly beet I'd ever seen. I wasn't so crazy for the hunk of romaine presented "Caesar style," which was too clever for its own good.
The pizza, however, was lovely, with papery crusts and imaginative toppings. I fell in love with the one scattered with tissue-thin slices of salty pink prosciutto, amber-roasted pears and goat cheese — it was a truly sensual spin on a traditional dish.
For dessert, we shared a satiny panna cotta, served in a martini glass with a squiggle of golden spun sugar, and a very stylish tiramisu.
Looking around the room, Carmen sniffed that the place was "very corporate."