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Restaurant review: Va Bene Caffe brings pasta perfection to intimate lakeside setting

The dining room at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth features bright colors and natural light. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Diners watch as a ship passes by in Lake Superior while dining at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Scallops and Polenta at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 6
A dining area at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth offers an outdoor feel with protection from the elements. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com 4 / 6
Arrabiata al Padre Ricardo at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Salsiccia e Panna at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Italian-American restaurant Va Bene Caffe anchors the downtown cultural corridor on East Superior Street with its bright facade, tall windows and warm color palette, set in front of the backdrop of Lake Superior.

It's an intimate space — small enough to be romantic on a beautiful summer night in the main dining room or on the enclosed patio with spectacular views of the lake. It's also bright and airy enough to host a party for some of your best friends.

The Italian-American cuisine we've come to love in the United States since the 1950s is based largely on the culinary history and recipes of southern Italian immigrants. They've adapted traditional recipes for the palate of Americans to great success. Va Bene, under the ownership of Jim and Mary Kay Berarducci, is a restaurant definitely in that tradition.

The menu is large, with just over 50 dishes encompassing antipasti, soups and salads, pasta, beef and fish, pizzas and paninis. The antipasti are a fresh and modern sampling of traditional pairings, including one of my favorites, fresh pear and Pecorino slices with extra virgin olive oil and fresh cracked black pepper.

Salsiccia e Panna (sausage and cream) is one of my favorite dishes in Italian cuisine. I have to say, the pasta prepared at Va Bene is perfectly made. It's delightfully chewy with perfect texture and resistance. This dish is served rightfully with conchiglie rigate, more commonly known as shells. There's a pasta for every sauce out there, and the conchiglie are delightful for catching the rich cream and tomato sauce. The sausage was cooked well. I would have loved more herbs, but this dish was one I kept savoring as comfort food, and it's a generous portion. The restaurant prepares its own sauces, including this dish's gorgonzola cream sauce.

The Arrabiata al Padre Ricardo is a great representation of the cross currents of Italian pasta dishes in genuine Italian-American cuisine. I love that it's a spicy sauce — Arrabiata literally means angry. That this sauce is made with the meaty and highly desirable San Marzano tomato tells you immediately that this is a hearty and robustly flavored dish. And it's served with penne, very traditional for the sauce. Again, perfectly cooked pasta. Hands down. The spice is what you have to watch out for. It's got a full-throated kick, so be very specific about your comfort level when you order.

On service, this dish was far too spicy for me, and I have a high tolerance. It was so spicy that it made appreciating the other flavors of the sauce difficult. When the server was asked for a new serving because of the spice, she suggested the kitchen could just add more sauce to mute the spice. However, a new dish was ultimately prepared, and the second service was much more reasonable. It's a perfect sauce for the flavorful sausage and penne — at the right temperature.

But, Italian cuisine is more than pasta. On to the Seared Scallops with Polenta. The scallops were tender and textured nicely. I wanted more of the light orange glaze, as it was probably a bit too light. The only flaw in this dish was the polenta, which should be creamy. This polenta was a beautiful color for the dish, but it flaked on my fork, breaking off onto the plate instead of being part of the sensory delight of scooping up a scallop in a heaping, creamy bite with the polenta.

The Berarduccis have created a beautiful restaurant in a gorgeous location. With house-made desserts deliciously on display and with the front of the house filled with those boutique foodie items that every tourist loves to find, Va Bene is as near a village-like southern Italian-American restaurant as you can find for miles and miles.

With the serving staff having a bit more food culture knowledge, polished and ready to understand and meet the standards the restaurant so aspires to achieve, dining with the one you love or with friends on a weekend getaway up to the Zenith City would be as close to being in Italy on the coast as you could hope to find in these parts.

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