The Old City's newest eatery is almost a conjunction of Fiddler On The Roof and The Godfather. It's not that you'll find matzo ball marinara on the menu or swarthy button men lurking in the corners; instead, there's a decided respect for tradition alongside a lot of regard for the family with just a hint of omerta.
Owner Duane Carleo was raised with a strong sense of his Italian heritage. "Growing up in North Jersey, I've always identified with it," he says. That sense of connection along with a collection of traditional recipes is part of what distinguishes Lil' Vinnie's. Most of the menu options come from the family cookbook and, Carleo says, "My mother wouldn't have it any other way."
In keeping with that tradition, everything, with only a few exceptions, is made in-house. One exception is the bread, which is delivered freshly from neighboring DaVinci's Pizzeria (also a Carleo restaurant). You'll recognize it as reformed pizza crust—but it's shamelessly seasoned and nearly addictive. Many of the sauces are made to order, but not the marinara—because as everyone knows, at least according to manager Rich Goodrich, "a good marinara like ours takes a long time to cook."
Carleo and staff are proud of their traditional food, but don't ask for the recipes, paisan. When Goodrich describes the signature meatball appetizer, he starts with the basics and then stops suddenly, saying, "I can't tell you any more." There's a decided and prideful code of silence here.
It's obvious that this place is a labor of love. Carleo, who, in addition to DaVinci's, runs several other ventures in the Old City, takes time to make every serving of lasagna with his own two hands. In fact, he doesn't allow anyone else to even help create this beautifully layered and appetizing entrée.
The aim for Lil' Vinnie's, according to Goodrich, was to create a restaurant where you could sit with friends and family to enjoy quality traditional fare and conversation in a comfortable and casual atmosphere without the interference of a band or a ballgame. The place is recognizable from its previous incarnations, but the small changes in décor and color go a long way to creating Carleo's goals for a comfortable space.
Lil' Vinnie's serves wine, but patrons are welcome to BYOB for a reasonable $10 corkage fee. There is no beer or liquor on offer, but Carleo is considering adding a small selection of Italian brews. For the time being, though, you'll have to bring your own anisette.
119 South Central St. 200-4426
Monday-Sunday, opens at 5, no closing time noted.
Meatball: Unless you have a super-sized appetite, this signature appetizer is one to share. It's a delicately seasoned blend of beef and pork with fennel and other undisclosed herbs and spices that's served under a generous nap of Vinnie's long-simmered marinara sauce, along with an herb-laden dollop of creamy ricotta cheese and a bouquet of locally grown Genovese basil.
Lasagna: Served hot from the oven, this many-layered slice of pasta and cheese is certainly delicious, but it's also beautiful. Carleo's personal touch is evident in the careful layering that gives the dish a flavorful balance and attractive presentation. The portion is generous but not obscene, and it's carefully sauced not soupy.
Chicken Piccata: Unlike many versions of this classic dish, the bird is not pounded into a paillard; instead a plump breast is carefully sautéed to a golden brown and sauced with plenty of lemon, capers, and garlic in wine sauce. The garlic may look intense, but it's the lemon and wine that shine in this aromatically rich item that is served over a bed of pasta.