Simple Pleasure 

FOOD REVIEW: Pesce & Vino is uneven but endearing.

click to enlarge Shrimp and salmon skewers are a bright spot at Pesce & Vino in Henrico near Douglas Freeman High School.

Scott Elmquist

Shrimp and salmon skewers are a bright spot at Pesce & Vino in Henrico near Douglas Freeman High School.

There's a language barrier on a Tuesday night. It's late, and the adorable, Sicilian owners are slightly disheveled from a light rush in dinner service. But it only adds charm to the quaint atmosphere at Pesce & Vino in the West End.

First languages be damned: Garlic scents, warm bread and a straightforward seafood-heavy menu (but with tacos?) beckon from sparse table settings under low-drop lights. It's tough not to stare unabashedly into the bright, open kitchen, where the owners move in practiced tandem — one serving, the other cooking.

Fumbling through my barely passable Italian, we're seated and coddled like guests in an Italian home. The wine list is explained with pithy verbiage, heavy on big, mouthy Italian reds. The beer list is so pedestrian it needs no elaboration. We choose both specials of the night and receive an approving motherly nod: shrimp and basil pesto linguini ($21) and seafood cannelloni ($21). A nearby diner requests last week's appetizer special of crab bites ($11.50) and the waiter obliges without hesitation. We follow suit. The shape and size of golf balls, the seven crab bites (more like two bites each) are almost all lump crab. With just a little more seasoning, they'd be one of the best crab deals in the West End.

Basil linguini is fresh and simple if a tad oily. An abundance of bright orange, tail-on shrimp is piled atop and is as al dente as the pasta. The cannelloni isn't as successful, covered in vivid and uncomplicated tomato sauce. Only a few pieces of seafood are detectable, leaving just pasta sheets and a bit of seafood paste, a letdown considering the high note of the linguini.

On a recent Sunday visit, things are different. Hit hard from the weekend, Pesce & Vino doesn't seem to have caught its breath, and what once was charming comes across as ragged. Crab stuffed mushrooms, funghi ripieni ($9), have quite a bit of crab, but the mushrooms seem flabby. Gamberi piccanti, spicy shrimp ($9), are precisely that: six shrimp, tail-on, and spicy. Both appetizers are swimming atop wasted arugula.

Salmon and shrimp skewers ($19) are beautiful, but undercooked vegetables are tough to ignore even next to the delicate salmon. Side dishes of slightly gray, rosemary-roasted potatoes and grilled-into-submission vegetables don't help the skewer's case. Linguine di Parma ($17) is light years away from the first linguine experience. Unnecessary walnuts and even more arugula — which do not make a meal more Italian — play poorly with an over abundance of ham and a surprisingly light dusting of crab.

With a glimmer of a meal past, the good host all but forces dessert upon us. Cantaloupe and gelato ($8) cooked in marsala wine tastes of synthetic caramel and plasticlike almond. Tiramisu ($8) shows promise with a soaked ladyfinger but is squashed by over-sweet whipped cream and electric-red strawberry sauce. Thank goodness for the cannoli, with an espresso fragrance and fine textured ricotta, a proper ending to a carbohydrate-filled meal, not too sweet or overpowering.

Even with the sense of a crushed restaurant spirit in the air, several diners linger though the restaurant's long been closed. They know that this night may be an anomaly — three tables over near the kitchen, the owners settle in for their own dinner, as it should be. S

Pesce & Vino
8801 Three Chopt Road
303-2769
Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

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