Vinia is the best restaurant in Hannibal Square. It's a well-deserved superlative but given the petrifying and utterly bizarre times in which we all currently find ourselves, well, it's small consolation. Like every restaurant owner on the planet, Fabio Perricelli and Paula Gamba are concerned, anxious and desperate to salvage what they've built – in their case, a comely little enoteca off the cobblestoned streets of West New England Avenue.
I don't know if you've noticed, but it's become a dog-eat-doggy-bag world out there, with seemingly every restaurant in town vying for your takeout dollar. Can you blame them? Temporary layoffs; scratching and surviving; keeping their heads above water – good times these are not. But even as the clang of the death knell tolled for restaurants across the land, Perricelli and his staff plated, poured and served us with the calm of a musician on the Titanic. Deep down, we knew this would likely be our last meal at a restaurant for a good long while, and these sanguine folks helped us face our angst in, dare I say, Pollyanna fashion.
So, on a gorgeous evening, the dulcet sounds of bossa nova in the air, we went full Dionysus on Greek Agiorgitiko ($13) and Moschofilero ($12) wines at a sidewalk table outside. Corona-what now? Hey, the wine was a necessary indulgence, as was the cheese plate ($11/$21) of Scottish cheddar, fontina and aged gouda, which vanished much faster than we thought. Then came the dish of cauliflower and brown rice polpette ($8): Like a coronavirus task force briefing headed by a droning imbecile, this veg plate bluntly interrupted our sweet oblivion. One bite of the crumbly balls induced a Faucian head drop and extended rub of the brow.
Even so, Vinia's kitchen is creating more flavor here – with just an air fryer, convection oven and immersion circulator, no less – than most other restaurants on this tony strip. Yes, freshly made beef and cheese empanadas ($11) are some of the best I've had anywhere, but the pan-roasted cod ($13) on top of honey-roasted butternut squash flan was singlehandedly responsible for the opening line of this review. It's sauced with a lemon-sage nage that the folks at Chez Vincent across the street would envy.
The plush oxtail – braised with vegetables prior to a 24-hour sous-vide, then placed atop a layered stack of potatoes au gratin – was just as convincing. Perricelli, a Calabrian by way of São Paulo, says that Vinia will offer the oxtail with pasta instead of the potatoes as a takeout option while the restaurant remains closed to dine-in service. And that's OK, because their pasta – like toothy homemade ravioli ($9) stuffed with a holy Italian trinity of mascarpone, ricotta and Parmesan nestled into a rustic, slightly sweet pomodoro-ish sauce – couldn't have been better.
Over a dessert flight ($10) of pot de crème, a puff pastry apple torte and an affogato served with caramel espresso, Perricelli spoke to us about Gamba and the reason for her absence from the restaurant. She recently gave birth to their daughter, Olivia, and as he gushed about his family, my thoughts turned to the looming pestilence and Paula and Fabio's impending struggle to stay afloat.
Every chef and restaurateur will tell you these past two weeks have been the toughest of their careers, and that financial and economic assistance is essential if restaurants are to survive the unprecedented effects of COVID-19. If help doesn't come fast, and the industry is left to fall apart, insurance companies and all levels of government won't be able to wash their hands clean of the iniquity. No matter how hard they scrub.
—This story appeared in the April 1, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Please follow CDC guidelines and Orange County advisories to stay safe, and please support this free publication. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider making a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.