Vivo

Six years ago, Karen and I heard rumors about a place in Bellevue that was serving up fancy food. For a long time, we regarded these rumors with some skepticism. Bellevue, after all, is a working class town that is pretty far out of the city. It seemed like an unlikely home for a wonderful high-end food experience. When we eventually hauled ourselves out there we found to our surprise that the rumors were true. Vivo served up an eclectic menu that was both varied and consistently excellent. The place itself has an understated elegance. There is a bare iron awning over the door and a small sign in the window that says “Vivo”. There is a large picture window that looks out on to the street. In the winter, this window is dark, but in the spring and summer it splashes the whole room witha nice diffuse light. There are nice tables and large comfortable chairs. The long wall in the back of the restaurant is covered with black and white photos which I assume are family snapshots from one or more generations back. As you sit down, Sam or Lori will say hello to you from the kitchen. If they aren’t busy, they’ll come over and chat about things. When we were in there last week, Sam asked about the Pittsburgh Magazine best restaurants party, and then kibitzed for 15 minutes about the state of the restaurant “scene” in Pittsburgh.

Later on, someone will come and recite the menu to you. Earlier in its existence, Sam had long hand-written menus with specials and all that. After a couple of years, he switched to essentially a weekly menu, filled with the interesting stuff that he found in the market at the time. Unusual ingredients is something of a speciality here. Sam does this in a matter-of-fact way that does not exude pretension. And yet this night we had great oysters on the half-shell, fiddlehead ferns, and the chance to order lamb with candied endive, which we had to pass up in favor of other things. Vivo is the first place in Pittsburgh that we ever had abalone, or halibut cheeks. There is always some interesting ingredient or preparation on the menu. But it is not presented to you as high art, or something that took a lot of inspiration and perspiration to create. It’s as if you went over to his house, and Sam pulled the stuff out of the fridge.

The menus generally consist of five or six appetizers and five or six dinners. The dinners are a mix of meats and mild fish and other seafood. Each come with a pasta course ahead of the dinner and a salad course after. You can split dinners for an modest up-charge. The up-charge buys twice the grilled vegetable side dishes as the normal entree. This is a good deal, but does not really reduce the amount of food you have to deal with. The food is uniformly excellent. I think Sam’s predilections for simple preparation and the use of the grill makes the meat dishes better than the fish. This might just be my imagination, or it could be a function of how hard it is to get fresh fish in Pittsburgh. In any case, I highly recommend the tenderloin, however he is making it. We had it with a simple red wine sauce, grilled mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns and taleggio cheese.

If, after all of this you still have room, the dessert menu is always populated with whatever Lori has recently concocted. She once made us a chocolate panna- cotta, a chilled, extra thick custard. We always forget to ask her to make some ahead of deciding to go to the place. There is also the obligatory four pound piece of flour-less chocolate “cake”, a mix of gelato and sorbet, and anything else that she might have thought to make. The coffee isn’t super, but it’s made better by the large mug and the dessert.

Every time we go to Vivo, we seem to forget how good the place really is, and we come out of the experience almost as surprised as we were the first time. How can a place like this exist in a place like Bellevue? However they manage it, Vivo has been there for the long haul. What Sam and Lori have built here could survive in any food “scene” in the country. We are lucky to have them in Pittsburgh. You should go out there and thank them for it.

A Note

By Pittsburgh standards, Vivo is pretty expensive. The appetizers all go for about $10, and the dinners are in the $40 range for all three courses. I have seen complaints on the net that this is too much money, and that the portions are on the small side. The people who write such things are clinically insane.

Also, here is a map to the place.