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First-bite report: Cafe Vincero in downtown Tacoma

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on June 13, 2014 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
June 12, 2014 5:21 pm
Kevin Cornwell has just remodeled this downtown Tacoma space into his new Italian restaurant Cafe Vincero.  His team includes Connor Guzman (left), Bruce Barber, and Madisen Bryan (right).  Peter Haley/Staff photographer
Kevin Cornwell has just remodeled this downtown Tacoma space into his new Italian restaurant Cafe Vincero. His team includes Connor Guzman (left), Bruce Barber, and Madisen Bryan (right). Peter Haley/Staff photographer

Downtown Tacoma’s finest entertainment corridor percolates between Seventh and Ninth on Pacific Avenue. Consider it equally fit for nightlife seekers or daytime lunch grubbers.

At night, there’s the tiki bar Tacoma Cabana with handcrafted cocktails from Jason Alexander and island-themed “vacation fusion” eats from Robyn Murphy. The Tex-Mex restaurant Matador has a knock-out tequila list. The casual pubs Meconi’s, The Forum and The Office compete for the same crowd, but each display distinct identities.

The excellent Orange Door Vietnamese bistro and the lunch buffet at India Mahal get my vote for noon dining.
And then there’s that fun spot for kids of all ages, Dorky’s Arcade, with pinball machines from an era when we wanted our hair and music equally big and obnoxious.

It gets better. Two promising brewery-taprooms — Odd Otter Brewing Co., and Pacific Brewing and Malting Co. — are expected this summer.

Kevin Cornwell was smart for planting his casual Italian eatery in the middle of that stretch. He opened Cafe Vincero April 23 at 714 Pacific Ave. Cornwell, a South Sound native whose first restaurant job was working at Vince’s Italian Restaurant, carved a beautiful restaurant into the narrow space that previously held a retail shop.

He added warmth – and an attractive sound barrier – with a wood-wrapped ceiling. Ceramic mosaics in earthy-buttery tones cascade from the ceiling and spill onto the well-spaced tables. Diners get peek-a-boo views of a working kitchen with a fruitwood-fired pizza oven at its heart.

The succinct menu lists pizza and pasta at dinner, with the addition of sandwiches at lunch.

During three anonymous visits, I found a restaurant with great potential, but struggling for consistency.

Cornwell’s plan to hire a chef evaporated, and he’s currently running the restaurant and acting as chef, although he’s inexperienced at both. That inexperience was apparent with uneven food and service, which is why I can’t recommend this restaurant until it works out its inconsistencies.

First: the good.

What the restaurant has working in its favor is an owner who strives to get details right, and a wood-fired pizza oven that should be the envy of any pizza maker in town.

Another bonus is a well-priced menu, especially for that neighborhood. Dinner entrees tap out at $12.99; lunch is under $10. I also view the wine list — with a solid mix of Italian and Washington reds — as a lovely surprise, considering Cornwell’s original plan skipped the wine. Months of construction and redrawing building plans in the narrow space meant he had to create dead space in the middle of his restaurant to meet city codes. He chose to fill that space with a glass-enclosed wine storage room.

Now for the flubs.

Two of three visits revealed amateur servers with unpolished tableside banter. An order mistake on one visit was followed by a grueling experience where bread took 20 minutes to arrive and the server gave conflicting explanations about an entree that went missing for the duration of the meal.

Pasta consistently tasted overcooked and the sauces underperformed. Pasty tortellini matched the disappointingly flat alla matriciana sauce ($8.99 lunch/$12.99 dinner) that even bacon couldn’t save. A dinner-only appetizer of mushroom risotto ($6.95) was so crunchy, it proved inedible. Gummy gnocchi ($10.99, dinner only) came with a tomato-based ragu sauce so light on meat, it nearly passed for a marinara.

That same under-performing ragu showed up on spaghetti, but that pasta was pleasingly al dente ($6.99/$10.99).
Pizza struck out two of three visits ($9.99-$12.99), with pies arriving with an anemic crust, removed far too soon from that fabulous oven fired by cherrywood. The sauce had been glopped on so thickly, it slid off, along with the toppings.

By the third visit, the crust was closer to acceptable, the sauce less burdensome.

What was consistent was the flavorless crust. I wanted something more complicated — the likes of Primo Grill, where chef-owner Charlie McManus employs a continually fed biga sponge to create full-bodied crusts with a delicate chew.

Cornwell said his crust is still a work in progress, but he’s nearly found the sweet spot in the heart of that oven.

A few bright dishes made me hopeful for return visits. A lunchtime meatball sandwich at $7.99 proved a bargain, the meatballs beefy in flavor, light in texture. A velvety cream sauce with prosciutto clung to al dente fettuccine ($8.99/$12.99). Ignoring the flaccid lettuce, a Caesar ($7.99) was decked in a dynamite dressing.

During a follow-up phone interview, I told Cornwell what had gone wrong during my visits, and he ticked off a list of things he’s improving. I applaud an owner who takes criticism not only in stride, but appreciatively.
If you have an iffy experience at Cafe Vincero, be sure to tell Cornwell. He’s listening.

Cafe Vincero
Where: 714 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-503-6141 or facebook.com/cafevincero.
Serving: Lunch served Mondays-Saturdays, dinner served daily. Morning coffee service Mondays-Saturdays.
Forecast: Consistently bumpy service and food flubs mean this restaurant is not ready for prime time.
Menu: Casually presented Italian fare with pizzas, pasta and sandwiches at economical prices. Entrees are $10-$13 at dinner, $8-$10 at lunch.
Wine list: About 30 bottles ($20-$145) with an emphasis on bold reds from Italy and Washington; pricing mostly around $40. Value focused menu by the glass, with 12 choices priced $6-$8.
Wine service: Wine recommendations were brief but satisfactory.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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