★★½ [Very Good – Superior]
Fresher, funkier, brasher, nouveau-rustico has come to Westport’s historic National Hall. Thanks to owner Bobby Werhane, who also owns a hip osteria in Manhattan, Vespa zipped into town with all the requisite icons on board, starting with its jazzy-jokey name (which has many meanings, among them yellow jacket or wasp). Stylish decor. Startlingly stark. Acres of counter space for nibbling crudo standing up and milling around with a glass of fine French or Italian wine in hand.
Parallel to the bar, abetting this to-and-fro socializing, is a row of diminutive high-top tables that remind me of the portable tables that used to be set up for tableside pyrotechnics like Steak Diane and Bananas Foster. Perish the thought. Opulence is so yesterday. We eat healthier now and nouveau-rustico is all about farm-to-table, locally sourced and handcrafted. But if you frequent Italian restaurants for the comfort of a familiar menu, forget it. Ahead lies terra nova.
Vespa’s menu changes frequently, which is rather surprising because it is a handsome affair printed in black and gold on heavy ivory stock with a half dozen fancy typefaces, and is filled with interesting categories and intriguing dishes, some familiar, some less so. Either way, what’s printed on the page is often only a hint of what’s to come because Vespa’s mission statement is to transform peasant ingredients into masterpieces of culinary art—and to make it fun.
We prove the point when we choose an appetizer from a list of “Toasts” and are presented with roasted wild mushrooms, arugula pesto and a sunnyside-up fried egg sizzling in a small, heavy black iron frying pan, with warm, lightly toasted house-made bread alongside. Flawless. Delicious. Decidedly a surprise.
A salad of roasted beets, hazelnuts and sottocenere cheese turns out to be more complex and impressive than it sounds, consisting of red beets, roasted and cubed, shredded beets and thin slices of red-and-white-striped candy-cane beets, crisp and showy and served raw because cooking tends to fade the festive color scheme. Tart dressing balances the sweetness of the beets while chopped hazelnuts add an interesting flavor note.
But purity and simplicity also get their due here as a scallop crudo appetizer demonstrates: one beautiful diver scallop, citrus-cured and served with tissue-paper-thin slices of young cucumber.
Vegetarians will have a ball with Vespa’s appetizer list, which includes whole sections of vegetables, salads and cheese creations like “three-cheese polenta,” but I have my eye on pancetta-wrapped dates, which take me back to my childhood when my mother made them with bacon and served them to her bridge club. Vespa’s skewered dates are more voluptuous, with Mascarpone and a pool of chocolate-and-mulled-wine sauce so irresistible we want to lick the plate.
One could easily make a meal of appetizers like these but Vespa is Italian and, Mama Mia, how could even the coolest cat do without “No. 1 Primi Pasta,” which the menu proclaims are tutti fatta en casa, i.e., all made in-house. Some are modern versions of Old World pasta dishes, but Stracci goes trendy with kale, poached pumpkin, browned butter and almond biscotti crumbs. Oxtail raviolini—a single small round of ragu-filled pasta topped with a tiny dice of root vegetables—is the perfect light bite of pasta before Secundi.
Turning our attention to the entrée list, we find it oddly unbalanced. With only scallops and one fish offered, it’s decidedly meat-heavy with lamb chops, veal tenderloin, rib-eye filet and New York strip tenderloin. Our waitress assures us that, “We usually have more fish, but…” she trails off. I believe her. It happens. But it’s disappointing.
However, the fish, Arctic char, is wonderful. Perfectly fresh, cooked meltingly medium-rare, flaking away from the fork in silky slices, strewn with Castelvetrano olives and served with white anchovies and black-walnut sunchoke purée. I promptly elect it to my personal fish dish hall of fame.
Grilled lamb chops are problematic. People who like lamb tend to like it a lot. Mimi Sheraton, food writer and former New York Times restaurant critic called it her “favorite red meat.” Purists cherish lamb’s distinctive flavor so much they refuse to sully it with even a dab of mint sauce. My friend Ed feels that way, and says so when we order an entrée portion to share. Eggplant purée and pistachio pesto are listed accompaniments but our waitress assures us that these are on the plate but not on the chops. Four rib chops arrive, perfectly cooked medium rare and blessedly naked. One bite and the tongue prickles, one swallow and the mouth fills with heat. Harissa? Jalapeño? Who knew? And we wish we had been told. Fans of Tex-Mex, Ethiopian, Szechuan and Middle-Eastern and African cuisine will love these chops. So will folks who usually don’t do lamb. It’s a matter of taste, but be warned.
Veal, unlike lamb, is among the mildest of meats and almost always benefits from creative embellishment, but it needs to be treated gently so that its delicate flavor is not overwhelmed. At Vespa, a lovely medallion of veal tenderloin arrives wrapped in speck, a dry-cured ham from the Italian Alps, similar to prosciutto but more robust. The speck, and perhaps extra smoking, permeates the veal with a smokiness elusively referencing barbeque—again a matter of taste. Personally, I would prefer this fine-grained mignonette of veal unsmoked, paired as it is here with mushrooms, Swiss chard and Marsala butter.
The lightness of Vespa’s cuisine makes the idea of dessert appealing and the choices are alluring. Highlights include lemon olive oil cake with orange gelato and cranberry gelée, and macchiato panna cota with espresso cream, frangelico caramel and hazelnut nougatine, but our favorite is a bowl of Zeppole, freshly made and served piping hot with chocolate fudge sauce and tart cherry jam. Like its country cousins, New Orleans beignets, it’s a party on a plate.