Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Taste of the past

Posted By on Wed, Feb 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM

I asked a fellow Southwest Detroiter about Vince’s, and he said, “It’s old school.” Does Italian old school ask, “baked potato or fries?”

Vince’s is the kind of place you’d like to like, for nostalgia’s sake. A dose of ’50s-era Italian-American spaghetti served by waitresses who call you “honey” can be calming and restorative.

But the food should be good by its own standards. Most of Vince’s dishes that I sampled shared one characteristic — they had little flavor.

Vince’s owners have put effort into reassuring the old-school diner that his Italian-American meal will contain no post-Lucy-era innovations. Parmesan is not grated fresh but served in a shaker. I asked what the French dressing was like and got a one-word reply. “Orange,” said the waitress unblushingly, pointing to the color on the menu.

The bread looks like focaccia, but contains no herbs — hey, even my mom served garlic bread with her spaghetti casserole. In the minestrone, the carrots are cubed to look comfortably like those in Campbell’s soups.

These practices would all be expected (and are repeated daily in thousands of restaurants across America) if the pasta didn’t cost $15 and the veal $20. Vince’s has high expectation prices for low-expectation food.

A few dishes are tasty. Marinated artichoke hearts — eight bites for $5.55 — are sharp and worthy of note, though topped with shredded carrot and served on iceberg. My pasta carbonara was creamy enough, with some sweet whole garlic cloves, although the liberal bacon was sprinkled over the top rather than melded into the sauce. I thought this might be in order to ensure meat-loving Americans that it’s there (or to look like a salad-bar salad). Some nontraditional diced tomato was added — chef’s whimsy, or to placate those who think Italian equals tomato?

A single small cannoli ($4.25) was also decent, with a crunchy shell and creamy filling.

My party was divided over Vince’s pizza: One thought it terrible, for the dearth of tomato sauce; one couldn’t get past the $14 price (for a large with two items). I thought it was great though greasy. I admit that both adjectives were due to the large, still-soft squares of bacon liberally laid on. They seemed to have been cooked with the pizza — quite different from the charred bits most places sprinkle on top.

Vince’s makes its own pasta, usually a plus. The ravioli seemed a little silkier and more delicate than store-bought, but you had to concentrate to experience any flavor in the sauce or the filling. In the side dishes of angel hair with tomato-meat sauce, the angel hair seemed just a bit tougher than most restaurants serve. That’s better than mushy, and at least added a point of interest, since the sauce had none. Similarly for the veal parmigiana — no texture, little flavor.

Although the cute, ridged ovoids of gnocchi had no potato flavor, their tomato sauce was better than the sauces on other dishes. Slightly sweet and simple, it seemed made with affection, though it contained almost none of the advertised meat.

We chose “Italian” dressing for our chopped-up dinner salads. Judging purely by taste, it was vegetable oil, no vinegar — not even salt. All the taste was cooked out of the super-soft minestrone.

Vince’s serves tiramisu — now there’s a modernism! But it contained no hint of Marsala or chocolate and only the faintest of coffee.

Another blast from the past is wine sold by the carafe and half-carafe, and here the prices come down. I ordered a $3.95 glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Placido and found it a small step above jug wine.

The most interesting thing about Vince’s interior design is the large paintings of scenes of Rome. For me, they didn’t make the dining room any cozier. Dinette-style chairs and cheap lace tablecloths under glass raise the question again why customers are willing to pay top dollar.

A large party was occupying the side room when I visited, seated around a long table with a red-checked cloth. Perhaps this is Vince’s mainstay — families long moved to the suburbs that remember celebrating Aunt Nancy and Uncle Joe’s anniversary at Vince’s.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail


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