Eating out can be full of little surprises. But what really bemused me about my visit to this city centre Italian eatery was that it hadn’t featured in these pages before. I suppose it’s the old familiar paradox for those of us who live in Chester.
You can visit great cities abroad, tour attractions ancient and modern, look in wonder at a great cathedral and maybe soak in scenic splendour from the comfort of a river cruise.
But how often do you walk around the City Walls, visit the amphitheatre or go to a city museum? When did you last take a leisurely boat trip on the Dee – or go to the zoo?
Unless you’re entertaining a particularly enthusiastic set of family or friends making their first visit to Chester, the chances of you partaking in any of the above are probably nil.
If it’s on your doorstep, you can go any time... so you never do.
Several City restaurants have arrived, usually with a great splash of publicity and are then often gone, seemingly overnight. But Vito’s just carries on doing what it does – and, as I discovered, doing it very well.
This is one city centre attraction that receives a steady stream of visitors and I felt bewilderment – and even a slight touch of shame – at not having been there for years.
The last time I went, in fact, it was half the size and, if my memory serves me well, was bedecked in patriotic red, white and green, probably with candles in straw-wrapped Chianti bottles on checked tablecloths (I’m a bit hazy on this last bit, but they were all the rage).
Now there is a large modern, airy room with a pleasant atmosphere, decorated with attractive murals depicting a sun-kissed scene of, I fancy, the Amalfi coast.
Vito’s used to be termed a trattoria. Now it covers all bases by describing itself as a trattoria, pizzeria, ristorante.
The trattoria is a peculiarly Italian creation, usually family run, where traditionally there are no menus but heaps of modest yet robust good home cooking served on common tables, with low prices to match.
Vito’s has an extensive menu of the all expected fare, some surprises and a couple of blackboard specials. It is neither cheap nor expensive and has clearly resisted the temptation to be over ambitious.
Some of the ‘food for family and friends’ spirit certainly prevails and our early-evening visit was shared by, among others, two large family groups, having lots of fun with pasta and breaking pizza together.
There are several starters to grab the eye. I definitely fancied asparagialla parmigiana (fresh asparagus tips, garlic butter with poached egg and parmesan cheese) and generous portions of calamari and mixed goujons of fish (both £4.95) were certainly popular but, in keeping with the trattoria tradition, I felt obliged to try the specialita della casa.
This was peperoni ripieri (deep fried sweet pepper filled with chicken, rice and mozzarella in a spicy tomato and pepper sauce, £5-95). It was superb.
My wife had the bruschetta classica, with garlic, olive and herbs (£2.50) and we also shared a portion of wonderful black olives marinated in olive oil and chilli (£2.95).
Vito’s does offer a small selection of international beers, including, of course, the Italian peroni nastro azzuro but you can’t complete the Italian experience without enjoying a carafe of red wine. From a list of 16 or so wines we opted for a litre of the enjoyable house red, medium dry (£12.95).
The restaurant’s list of main dishes includes a range of veal, chicken, steak, salmon and tuna specials, mainly in the £12.95 to £14.95 range, and there are almost 30 vegetarian dishes on offer. But, again, we opted for tradition.
Pizzas are made to order in the open kitchen on a wood burning stove which Vito himself proudly boasts was imported from his home town of Naples. The scene is an entertaining one, noisy and efficient, but without any real drama!
There are lots of tempting pizza dishes on offer, with ultimate freshness obviously guaranteed and if you can’t make up your mind, you can try the calzone del chef (‘leave it to him’) at £7.50.
But we went for pasta. The garlic bread had more than done its job and my wife was grateful she could order a smaller version of her favourite spaghetti carbonara (£5.95) which featured a generous amount of crispy pancetta, helping to give a spicy, cured taste alongside the Parmesan.
I went for penne paesana (£7.95), a satisfying but not over-facing plate of pasta and meatballs in tomato, garlic and chilli sauce. Again, it was delicious, the meatballs meatily coarse but with the softness of fine pâté.
We were offered the dessert menu but by we now felt our enjoyment was almost complete save for the sheer indulgence of a couple of liquer coffees (£4.50 each). My wife enjoyed an Irish coffee while I steered the predictable course again opting for the Italian version. This was laced with the anise-flavoured sambuca and was a new taste for me.
I was pleased to see Vito’s doing good business. They seem to be surviving well alongside newer and bigger name Italian eateries, mostly just around the corner or up the road, by not over-stretching themselves, keeping it simple while offering fresh and interesting food with real value for money.
One thing is certain. We certainly won’t leave it so long before a return visit. After all, it’s almost on our doorstep!
There is a two-course lunch special on offer at £6.95.
Vito’s Trattoria, Pizzeria, Ristorante, 25 Lower Bridge Street, Chester.
Tel no: 01244 317330.
Total cost: £47.25 for two people. Food: £34.30 for two courses plus liqueur coffees. House wine: £12.95.
Best thing: Fresh and interesting food in a pleasant atmosphere.
Worst thing: Limited choice of daily specials.
Would suit: Families and lovers of classic Italian food.
Wouldn’t suit: Couples seeking a romantic hideaway.