Critic's star breakdown
- Food: 3.5 stars (out of five)
- Service: 4
- Atmosphere: 4
- Overall: 3.5
I try not to read online feedback about a restaurant before I experience it for myself. I prefer to go in with a clear mind that's free of influence. Unfortunately, in the process of looking for a Lil' Vinnie's menu, I let my eyes wander onto some less-than-flattering input from previous patrons who had posted reviews on one particular website. But when I considered that the significant majority of visitors to the site still rated the restaurant favorably and that people are more likely to write negative reviews than positive ones, I decided to forge ahead with my visit.
The Grub Spouse and I sat down in the Old City eatery (in the former Night Owl Cafe location) for a recent dinner. We were promptly greeted by a young male server and given our choice of table. The main room has about 10 tables, and more seating is available in the adjoining space. Overall, I thought Lil' Vinnie's did a good job of creating an intimate, inviting, Italian bistro-style atmosphere without getting too caught up in ethnic decor and kitsch.
One full page of the brief menu is devoted to wine selections, but The Spouse and I passed on an adult beverage and jumped straight to the appetizer section. The lineup includes a small salad, mussels sauteed in white wine sauce and a large homemade meatball. We put in an order for the bruschetta.
The rest of the menu structure made the decision-making process fairly simple for us. The choices are a build-your-own-pasta dish or one of the house specialties. Taking our trusty divide-and-conquer approach, The Spouse focused on the latter, which include cheese ravioli, lasagna, chicken Parmesan and chicken piccata. The Spouse ordered the spinach ravioli topped with marinara sauce.
For my part, I chose penne pasta over spaghetti, fettuccini or linguine and added the creamy, tomato-based vodka sauce instead of the marinara, Alfredo or pesto options. For the protein, I picked chicken over meatballs or shrimp.
First out was the bruschetta. The buttered, toasted bread crusts were topped with tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil and vinegar. I felt that the diced tomatoes were indeed fresh and that the tart vinegar-flavored toppings worked nicely.
Next came our salads, which were basic iceberg greens topped with tomato and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Again, the greens and tomatoes were fresh and crisp, and the dressing was a pleasingly tart accent.
Our main dishes came out after an unrushed but not overly delayed interval. The Spouse's dish consisted of three large (about four inches in diameter) ravioli pieces, each of which was liberally stuffed with cheese and spinach. The flavors were balanced accordingly, and I had no problems with the marinara sauce, despite some online claims that it was canned (I guess these people were actually back in the kitchen when their meals were prepared, right?).
My custom-ordered pasta dish was also enjoyable. The creamy sauce was tasty, although the presence of any vodka flavoring was almost too subtle to detect. At first glance, I didn't see any chicken in the dish, although once I started stirring and poking around, I saw plenty of pieces of well-disguised chicken strips hiding among the noodles. And I was very pleased with the flavor and texture of the pan-seared meat.
The menu only mentions cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake for dessert, both of which are brought in from a local bakery. We were still going to order a cheesecake just on principle, but upon learning that they were out of it, we decided to pass on the sweet stuff altogether.
Considering the food, service and atmosphere, I'm glad The Spouse and I made the effort. And while I don't foresee Lil' Vinnie's necessarily taking home any Best Italian Restaurant awards in the near future, I also think it's proof that the ultimate judge of any cuisine should be one's own palate.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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