New Vintage

A historic St. Paul address turns its tables to become Il Vesco Vino, a welcoming trattoria

Click here to watch a video tour of Il Vesco Vino.

I can still hardly believe the Vintage in St. Paul lasted as long as it did, surviving its share of infamous incidents. There was the alleged drug bust—something about a cook having crystal meth shipped to the restaurant. And the memorable evening during which a pre-heart-surgery Garrison Keillor knocked back numerous glasses of wine. And, finally, the unfortunate event involving a very ticked-off marine biologist who had been served monkfish in the guise of lobster. One local critic remarked that the place had “a shameful and appalling history of consistently serving some of the worst food I have ever eaten in a ‘nice’ restaurant.” It was time for the Vintage to go—and last September, after nearly a decade in business, it did.

In its place, we have Il Vesco Vino (Italian for “the bishop’s wine,” perhaps a spoof on The Bishop’s Wife, a classic holiday film in which an angel played by Cary Grant is sent to help a church leader get his marriage back on track). Considering the pedigree of its owners, who include the Marchionda family (owners of the I Nonni Italian restaurant and Buon Giorno market in Lilydale), and Wally Buffalo (I Nonni’s former sous-chef, who most recently headed Nochee), Il Vesco Vino shouldn’t require divine intervention. With its inviting fireplaces and friendly staff, Il Vesco Vino feels like a more casual cousin of I Nonni—polished stone tabletops versus white linens. You can walk in off the street, bring the kids, and avoid the drive to Lilydale.

Photo by Terry Brennan

The elegant 1880s duplex (which is divided into multiple rooms on two levels, with banquet space on the third and fourth floors) feels cozier than I Nonni, whose architecture riffs on the neighboring McMansions. On busy nights, though, Il Vesco Vino’s unusual space becomes a liability. With no softening textures, chatter bounces off brick instead of staying private. The hiss of the steaming espresso machine stifles conversation like an airplane overhead. When someone cracks a joke at a table of six, it elicits a deafening roar.

The noise level makes the place feel less like a restaurant and more like a bar, as does the garish ceiling-mounted television. And while the exclusively Italian wine list (unique but approachable, not too expensive, and available in cute carafes) seems appropriate for a light meal, many of the snacking items weren’t very impressive.

There’s nothing wrong with the simple plates of meats or cheeses, or the tonno e fagioli (cooked tuna, cannellini beans, onion, lemon, and oil), except that they’re the sorts of things you’d be perfectly capable of making yourself at home. Of the fried snacks, or fritti (the Neapolitan staple has its own section on the menu), the baccalà (salt-cod fritters) and arancini (rice and mozzarella balls) had delicate crusts, but inside was an indistinguishable, flavorless gruel. The buffalo carpaccio had the opposite problem: too high a PSI—peppercorns per square inch—rating, overwhelming the flavor of the meat.

A sample of the tasty house-made meatballs led us to believe we’d be better off eschewing finger food for heartier fare. Served in a faintly sweet tomato sauce, the meatballs had the same rich, homey characteristics found in the restaurant’s best pastas. The menu avoids the standard sauces, like Bolognese and Alfredo, and instead features ingredients from southern Italy. I was somewhat skeptical about the braised goat leg in the ziti all’Avellinese, after mixed experiences with the sometimes tough, gamey meat at African and Jamaican restaurants. Instead, the goat was as tender as pot roast. Combined with tomato and mild caciocavallo cheese, then baked to create the slightest crust, it was ideal comfort food. From the seaside selection of pastas, the lasagna nera satisfied us most, its squid ink pasta bridging the flavors of seafood and béchamel. The straightforward pasta was the most disappointing: the gnocchi alla sorrentina were dense and pasty as a Chef Boyardee product.

Photo by Terry Brennan

A number of the secondi courses succeeded in their smart, simple compositions and, hovering just under $20, they offer a good value. Both of the fish dishes I tried—red snapper, paired with slices of roasted eggplant and a pickled beet salad; and halibut, served with sweet corn, grapefruit, and basil—were imaginative preparations with lively flavors, based more on Buffalo’s inspiration than Italian tradition. Again, there were entrée contradictions: the braised beef short ribs were a hit, complemented with a splash of spicy oil and a side of pert lentils (if you tend to pooh-poo this overlooked legume, these should change your mind). But the mushy, over-salted veal was passed over after a couple of bites.

Nothing on the dessert list screamed there’s no way you’re leaving without at least one bite. And, as it turned out, the ho-hum Neapolitan doughnuts didn’t seem worth lingering over, nor did the icy gelato. (I pouted a bit when remembering the heaven-sent stuff served at cafés near the Vatican.) To make sure Il Vesco Vino doesn’t become known as “the bishop’s whine,” perhaps Cary Grant could don his wings and drop on by for a visit?

Il Vesco Vino
579 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 651-222-7000
Open Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Sunday 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations not necessary but recommended on weekends.
Parking in adjacent lot or on the street.
Prices appetizers $6–$13, entrées $14–$21

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.