Digging into some hearty Italian fare at Vinnie’s Pasta Bar

I haven’t been going out to eat much lately. Well, that’s not entirely true… But I haven’t gone anywhere exciting or new in a while, thus, I haven’t been chronicling my more mundane dining adventures. My bad. I’ll try and get out more, k?

Last week, Kevin asked me on a date. (He’s going to kill me for writing that). I mean, we don’t really date anymore. We live together (the jig is up, folks) and we go out to eat often… does it really count as a date every time we leave the house together? “Oh, let’s go on a date to the grocery store to get some milk!” Nah. Not much allure or romance there… Still, every once in a while, we plan a nice night out together. He asked where I wanted to go, and after some consideration, I settled on pasta. Not wanting to get all tarted up, Il Merc and Bicycle Thief were off the table, but Vinnie’s Pasta Bar was not.

With a casual, laid back atmosphere and rustic Italian dishes, Vinnie’s is kind of the perfect place to go for a quiet and relaxed dinner with your partner or a friend. But be forewarned: it’s a small dining room, and tables are at a premium on the weekend, so if you want to go on a Friday or Saturday night, you really should make a reservation.

But when I suggested pasta to Kevin, he made a funny face, and explained that he doesn’t really like to go out for pasta, because it’s something that isn’t hard to make at home. :|

Yep. I made that face. Making “pasta” is one thing. Making *good* pasta is another thing completely. Vinnie’s does *good* pasta; rest assured, it ain’t East Side Mario’s.

With dim lighting, simple and somewhat rustic decor, and butcher paper on the tables, this is a place to settle in, get comfortable and mange! without worrying about splashing a bit of your red wine. I happened to know our lovely server that evening, which may have been why our service felt personal and was so spot-on.

We started with a loaf of their freshly baked bread, which we slathered with whipped butter (mmmm carbs) and happily devoured while we perused the menus.

Once we were informed that their calamari was the best in the city, we felt obliged to try it. They aren’t lying, folks. Rather than the standard (somewhat boring) take on this go-to appetizer, Vinnie’s preparation involves a mango tomato sauce, so the dish is sweet with some definite heat. The calamari itself is still breaded, so you lose the *crunch* a bit once it’s tossed in the sauce, but I didn’t mind that at all, especially since it wasn’t the least bit rubbery.

For mains, I decided to go with the Mediterranean Linguine (plump shrimp, peppers, and feta) because I thought it sounded somewhat healthy (right? right), and Kevin opted for the daily special, with was tiger shrimp in a carbonara sauce, served on linguine and topped with a 5 oz. striploin steak.

Both of us mopped up the dregs of our dishes, and slipped into a carb coma with smiles on our faces.

Vinnie's Pasta Bar on Urbanspoon

A light, bright spring pasta dish! (@kbelleicious)

It’s finallllly starting to warm up a wee bit, which means it’s time to shake up dinner time!

Cut down on the casseroles, bust out the grill, and get ready for fresh, light, and bright flavours. I’ve been looking for a few new recipes to inspire me, and came across this recipe for pasta with fried chickpeas, tomatoes, olives and capers posted by Kitchen Belleicious. She made the dish look absolutely delicious, so I decided to give it a whirl. Here’s how it turned out:

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I’m a huge fan of capers and olives, so I knew I would love this dish, but I wasn’t too sure about Kevin. He was skeptical, also, as he suspiciously watched me prepare dinner (he is leery of any meal that doesn’t have meat in it), but it turns out that he *LOVED* it (he polished off 2 huge bowls).

I’ll let you visit Kitchen Bellicious’ website if you want the recipe for this, but I will offer a few tips: 1) Don’t go overboard with the capers, because they’re quite salty and tart; 2) Use real Parmesan cheese, none of that fake, powdered nonsense. You won’t be disappointed. :)

More all-you-can-eat action @VinesPastaGrill!

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Being a relative newcomer to the whole other-side-of-the-bridge realm in HRM, I’m always keen to take restaurant recommendations for the Dartmouth area. One of my most trusted resources thus far has proven to be my coworker (and all-around good guy) Gordie, who has lived in Dartmouth for years, knows the area well (far better than I), and has similar culinary tastes to mine (impeccable, if I may say so myself).  :P

Anyways, as part of a very thoughtful housewarming gift, my lovely coworkers gave us a gift certificate to this place called The Vines Pasta Grill, which I hadn’t heard of before. I was advised to go on a Wednesday night, so we could partake in their legendary pasta bar.

Intrigued, and ever the food geek, I hit up their website for more info: every week they feature two soups, salads, homemade fresh rolls, and a wide variety of pasta dishes, all for just $19.95.  “Wow,” I thought, “They’d better be ready for Kev.”

After a few very hectic weeks that saw us either a) too busy or b) too tired to venture to Vines on a Wednesday, we finally made the trip last week.

Vines is located on Panavista Drive, which is just off of Main Street (hard to miss). It’s a small, unusual space for a restaurant, but one with lots of character. It’s a bit dark inside, but it kind of adds to the ambiance you’d expect from an Italian restaurant.

Anyways, we sampled quite a few of the dishes on offer as part of their Wednesday night pasta bar: we each tried a soup, a few of the salads and the mussels steamed in white wine and garlic, before digging into the main courses.

A creamy, slightly spicy soup loaded with tender chunks of chicken

Of the seven mains on offer, we each sampled a few small portions, including the Baked Cannelloni (cannelloni stuffed with ground beef, veal, cheese and spinach, baked in a blush sauce and topped with tomato sauce) the Penne Arrabiata (Italian sausage sauteed with vegetables, chillies and tomatoes served in a spicy tomato sauce on penne; my favourite), the Classic Meat Lasagna, and the Haddock (fresh haddock prepared encrusted with herbs and bread crumbs and pan fried). See, the strategic approach to tackling all-you-can-eat is to make many trips, and take small portions. That way, you can try a wide array of dishes without making yourself sick! :P

While it may be a stretch to call Vines “authentic” Italian cuisine, all of the dishes we tried were fresh and filling, and the service was great; our waiter was attentive without being annoying, and the guy manning the pasta bar was friendly (though he tried testing me on the difference between manicotti and canelloni *snicker*). My only complaint was that my fish was slightly dry, and that the pasta bar guy kept insisting that the pasta it was served with was couscous. It wasn’t. I think they were acini di pep, a small round pasta that’s usually used in soup.

Anyways, by our final trip to the pasta bar, we were both officially stuffed.

But that didn’t stop us from ordering dessert (which we took home to share). We couldn’t resist the uber-rich Chocolate Decadence (three layers: brownie bottom, cheesecake middle with a light truffle topping; $7.95).

Vines Pasta Grill on Urbanspoon

I crossed the first place off my list!! @StoneHearthHfx

So, at the beginning of 2012, I made a very ambitious list of the restaurants, cafes, etc… that I wanted to try and check out (either for the first time, or a much-needed return visit, because they were oh-so-good). I clearly am not going to be able to visit them all (we just bought a house, so my habit of eating out is going to be cut back, drastically, I’m afraid *sniff*

But, I’m pleased to say that I’ve crossed at least one place off that list: Stone Hearth Bistro.

Nestled into their brand-spanking-new digs in the Village at Bayers Road (or as it’s still known to all us West Enders: Bayers Road Shopping Centre), the bistro offers an impressive selection of fresh fare from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, and is open later on Thursdays and Fridays, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. They aren’t open on the weekend, which kind of makes sense, as their central clientele really must be the office workers that call the Village home during the work week.

Anyhow, I actually wrote a piece for the Chronicle Herald on Stone Hearth Bakery a few months back, which is when I first heard about the new bistro that was slated to open up. I’m a big fan of their freshly-baked breads, and figured the same standard of freshness and quality would carry over to their restaurant menu. Well, I’m happy to say that I was on the money! :)

We were in the midst of our move last week, and nary an edible item could be found in our cupboards. Since Stone Hearth is right around the corner from our former apartment, we finally made our way over to check out their lunch menu. The list wasn’t too long (which I think is a very good thing, especially for a new restaurant). If you try too many dishes right out of the gate, you always run the risk of overwhelming or confusing diners, or even your own kitchen crew… Plus, I’m of the mind that it’s better to do a few things very well, than aim for many things and only achieve mediocrity; the sniper vs. shotgun approach, if you will!

We were quickly seated in their beautiful dining room by a very friendly server, who brought us a basket of fresh foccacia bread and a plate of olive oil & balsamic for dipping… The bread was über soft and fresh (obviously), and I always think it’s a nice touch to offer diners a little something to keep their bellies from rumbling too loud as they decide what to order!

I found myself lingering on the pasta page (I was particularly tempted to try their Mac ‘n Cheese, which is described as “Smothered with five types of cheese, delicious crispy topping then baked to bubbly perfection”; $8). Macaroni and cheese is one of my favourite comfort foods, after all… But the Basil Pesto Cappelini  sounded just too good to pass up! Roasted garlic, feta cheese, artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, wilted spinach and roasted cherry tomatoes tossed with delicate cappellini pasta ($9). Fresh and flavourful: a contrast of earthy artichoke and tangy olive, with the creaminess of feta rounding out the dish perfectly! Though it was a massive portion, I managed to polish off every bite (hey, I worked up an appetite packing!)

Kevin, no surprise here, decided to order the Triple Decker Smoked Turkey Club (in-house smoked turkey, pancetta bacon, and caramelized onion mayo on Stone Hearth bread, served with a side of fries; $9). Okay, while that does sound absolutely delicious, I swear to GOD, for the sake of anyone who might regularly read this blog, that I WILL force him to start ordering something other than a club sandwich…

Both of our meals were really lovely, and enough to convince me to come back! In fact, they’re also open for breakfast (how amazing does Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict, a buttermilk biscuit topped with caper hollandaise and served with potato rosti, sound?!) I know, right!? The service was friendly, knowledgeable and attentive without venturing into annoying territory, and our lunch, with drinks and tip, came to $27.