A PERFECT MARRIAGE
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHY BY IAN MCLEOD
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHY BY IAN MCLEOD
In the restaurant world, there is one inviolable commandment: Never, ever—under any godforsaken circumstance—utter the phrase “passion project.” It’s a sure-fire jinx. An instant karma killer. You might as well stroll under a giant ladder, a broken mirror cracking underfoot, while you pet a black cat.
When seasoned industry folks hear that phrase, their thoughts invariably flit to way-too-precious concepts that end in unpaid loans and underwater mortgages. Who wouldn’t be interested in playing $300, some chefs wonder, for a 15-course tasting menu celebrating vegan fare inspired by the island of Guam? Answer: the general public.
So, a few months back, when chef Pete DeRuvo announced that he was working on a new restaurant concept that he had been dreaming about for 13 years, I held my breath.
“Please, please,” I whispered to myself, “don’t let him say those two words: passion project.”
DeRuvo, a chef and managing partner at the Scott Harris Restaurant group (best known for its Mia Francesca outposts), had already picked out a name: Vinny’s Clam Bar. He hoped to honor his New York-born uncle Vincenzo. He’d picked out a site as well: a long, rectangular dining space in Tinley Park that once housed a Tin Fish seafood outpost.
DeRuvo wanted Vinny’s to showcase two quite different dialects of Italian-American cooking: bisques, bivalves and brothy seafood-based pasta sauces from the East Coast. And the kind of brawny, garlicheavy Midwest Italian fare you would find at a red-sauce joint on the South Side of Chicago.
In different hands, this could have been pure gimmickry. Only DeRevu grew up in New York and spent plenty of time cooking clams in Rhode Island, so he cut no corners when building a proper East Coast cooking station. DeRuvo burns down white oak and mesquite—along with huge stalks of rosemary and other herbs— into embers, enshrouding everything that hits his grill in a fragrant cloud of sweet smoke. He prepares grilled pizzas at Vinny’s, which are just as crispy in the center as around the edges. For a unique treat, try his white “bianca” pie made with four cheeses — sheep’s milk, fontina, a pecorino fondue, and dried mozzarella—and blanketed with various veggie scrapes and Italian greens.
Vinny’s Chicago-style offerings prove to be particularly clever when they infuse East Coast flavor into classic Midwest Italian recipes. You would expect Vinney’s veal Marsala, for instance, to be prepared the Chicago way: pounded paper thin and bathed in a sweet wine sauce. It’s the opposite here: The veal is cut as thick as Salisbury steak. Mushrooms are stewed until they taste like the undergrowth of a forest. And the dominant flavor of the veal’s rich inky sauce is pungent blast of spicy black pepper, rather than the sweet jus we’re used to.
It takes finesse to mix, match and marry these two distinctly different approaches to Italian cooking, but DeRuvo does so rather seamlessly. We frontloaded our meal with seafood. You should, too.
If you like your oysters raw, he will have a selection of different shuckers to choose from, but I would suggest you let DeRuvo fire them up, either “Rock-a-fella” (think oysters Rockefeller) or ladled with garlic and herbs. But make sure to save room for the daily crudo, especially if the kitchen’s serving raw scallops.
We used our middle pasta course—linguine tutto mare piled high with clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, and cherry tomatoes— as a pivot. And then ordered Dominck’s meatball and Italian sausage platter, which is set on polenta and doused with a Sunday gravy slowly stewed with beef and neck bones. The dish, named after DeRuvo’s son, features some of the juiciest meatballs of the year: a combo of veal, pork and beef that is seasoned with lots of oregano and infused with ricotta. The kid doesn’t know how good he’s got it.
By the way, if Vinny’s sounds like an incredible baroque exploration of Italian food, you don’t know the half of it. There’s not a single sightline in the restaurant that hasn’t been designed to make you giggle. I’ve seen Where’s Waldo illustrations that have less going on than this place, which seems to be both celebrating and savaging a whole host of contemporary design motifs.
Rather than drape yet another “living garden” of plants and flowers from the ceiling, Vinny’s boasts an upside down “Italian garden,” which dangles plastic garlic cloves, straw-lined chianti bottles and faux sausages from the ceiling like giant mobiles. The 1970s-era wood paneling around the bar looks like it was salvaged the same basement bars my dad used to pound Old Styles in after playing his 16-inch softball tournaments.
I could go on for paragraphs. There is a giant mural of Scott Harris inspired by a famous magazine photo shoot. A giant disco ball that throws rainbows of light across the dining room come nightfall. And plenty of cute one-liners hidden throughout. A sign by the host stand reads: Director of First Impressions. And your plates will come stamped with phrases like than “Shell Yeah” and “Ship Happens.”
DeRuvo might have been wise to avoid every describing Vinny’s as his “passion project,” but one look at the ink running up his arm speaks volumes. Sitting below a tattoo celebrating his allegiance to the New York Yankees—hey, no one’s perfect—is another tattoo that reads Vinny’s.
Ample proof that, with the right talent and ideas, it is perfectly acceptable to wear your passion on your sleeve.
Vinny’s Clam Bar is located at 18201 S Harlem Ave. in Tinley Park, 708.680.4200, vinnysclambar.com.
Chef Pete DeRuvo says he has major plans afoot for themed dinners at Vinny’s (caviar dinners, Feast of the Seven Fishes, etc.) where he’ll highlight plenty of wines. For now, the cocktails are guaranteed to float your boat.