Food & Drink Hearts will play

But for the canned California olives, The Vine could be The One

"When the moon-a hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie, that's amore," crooned Dean Martin. The moon was full, pizza had just been added to the menu, and amore was in the air at The Vine on a recent Friday. We think we're in love, too - warts and all.

The Vine's warts are only metaphorical, but we might as well deal with them now: The homemade decor looks much better by day than at night under fluorescent lights, the bread is a feckless disaster, and the kitchen dares to use disgusting canned California black olives. In contrast, our waitress's accent made us want to rush right back to bella Italia, the Italian conversation buzzing around the room amplified the sense of vera cultura, and the genuine feeling of a family working together delivered the coup de grace. Who cares if the menu is disappointingly conventional.

The Vine's chef and owner, Rosie Tortore, holds up a plate of Lasagna di Mamma, a house specialty made from a family recipe. (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

The menu board provided much of the evening's inspiration. We picked an antipasto di Napoli for starters: a combination of melon, tomatoes, prosciutto, and fresh mozzarella. Sitting at the family table, tucked away in a corner, we had access to the pepper grinder and the vinegar and oil cruets, which we used liberally; the presentation was fresh and colorful (especially the combination of balled green melon and red cherry tomatoes) and the prosciutto refined, but the plate needed a little pick-up. We had also requested crocke di patate, a potato and cheese croquette, but the order apparently never made it to the kitchen, and we were so fully engaged in our meal that we didn't notice.

Part of that engagement had to do with our wine. There's no liquor license at The Vine, but there's also no corkage fee. Several diners brought their own wine and, a few knowing regulars, their own stemware. But even from clunky water glasses, our 2002 Navarro Correas Malbec Mendoza proved to be a stunner, developing with every sip and offering everything from cedar, leather, and licorice to black pepper, black cherry, tobacco, and tar. We loved it - though not with the house salad, an uninspired though fresh mixture with an acidic Italian dressing and those ##**!! olives.

Rosie prepares The Vine's desserts on site. Shown here are a cherry tart and tiramisu.

The wine and food were back in synch with the gnocchi di Sorrento, a basic but beguiling ramekin of pure pleasure: The gnocchi were baby's-butt soft and silky, the tomato sauce rich and creamy, and the grated cheese topping just generous enough. Chef and owner Rosie Tortore, a native of Naples, says her lasagna recipe is mama's. It's another triumph of simplicity, layered with a lusty tomato sauce and sturdy ground meat rather than puffed up with ricotta.

The Vine
Italian Ristorante

6387 Babcock at Prue
Lunch: 11am-2pm Tue-Sat
Dinner: 5-9pm Tue-Thu,
5-10pm Fri. & Sat
Credit cards
Price range: $7-15
Wheelchair Accessible

Rosie, engaging and sturdy in her own right, also says she's "a fish freak," and, accordingly, we ordered her Tallapia di Batista. There were more of those cursed olives and the tilapia was slightly overcooked, but, otherwise, we loved this dish for its garlic-accented, wine-like flavors and perfect angel hair pasta, which was much more integral to the plate than the average, knee-jerk side.

Rosie's nephew, Alessandro, recently recruited from Naples to produce The Vine's pizzas, is proof that culinary savvy runs in families and in regions. Foodies tend to shun Naples in favor of Florence, but Alessandro's pizza Margherita is testimony to the primal appeal of this simple Neopolitan classic: tomato sauce, cheese, fresh tomato, and fresh basil. His crust is pure perfection in my book. Other pizzas include a stuffed, folded, and deep fried "fritto," another regional specialty.

At The Vine, pizza and lasagna are served on pedestals.

Rosie makes all her own desserts and, seated in front of the illuminated cold cabinet, we had plenty of time to contemplate cream-filled cannoli and custard tarts. In the end it was an espresso-soaked tiramisu, perhaps the city's best, and a chocolate layer cake that prevailed. Lovers of death-by-chocolate may not be impressed by Rosie's rendition, but amantes of nonna's basic baking will go away fat and happy.

In two or three weeks, says Rosie, The Vine is going to add "new things," such as steaks and veal, to its menu. "You come, you see," she flirted. So we will. "Scusa me, but you see, back in old Napoli, that's amore ..."

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