736 S. Eighth St.
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One day last fall, my husband Edward and I were driving around Bella Vista when we noticed major renovations going on at the site of the former Café Lido. A good friend who lives in the neighborhood told me the new restaurant is called Vesuvio and has been open for about six months. On an evening when it didn’t rain, we hopped in the car and, with luck, found a parking spot a block away.

A gentleman with a soft Italian accent greeted us at the door and another man showed us to a roomy table in the center of the room. The dining room has warm natural brick walls with colorful artwork painted by a local artist. Tables are covered in white linen with napkins. Edward and I had been discussing the menu for about 10 minutes when we noticed an older woman carrying a cane being shown to a table.

"She’s all alone, why don’t we ask her to join us?" Edward suggested. Within a minute or so, we were enchanted by Dorothy, an 83-year-old Bella Vista resident, opera maven and aficionado of all the restaurants on South Eighth Street. It was her first visit to Vesuvio, and she instantly made friends with owner Michael D’Addesi and his wife, who, like Dorothy, have season tickets to the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

As we tucked into animated conversation, we ordered a bottle of Sangiovese ($27), which our trusted server poured into beautiful oversized red wine glasses. "I can only have a little bit," said Dorothy with a smile. Our server brought us delicious homemade hummus, studded with fresh herbs, and warm slices of dense Italian farmhouse bread.

A good study of the menu prepared by chef Robert Leget-Sherman and you see this is not a typical South Philly red-gravy restaurant. It’s not purely Italian, either, as Asian accents pop up and there’s a nod to the French, too. Although mussels, Caesar salad and fried calamari are on the menu, there are some interesting antipasti as well.

I began dinner with grilled quail ($9) and was not a bit disappointed. Leget-Sherman marinated the little bird in white balsamic vinegar and grilled it to perfection — it was still succulent inside. He sat it on a square of dreamy polenta, a bit creamy inside and nicely seared outside. The quail was stuffed with heady wild boar sausage, which imparted a delicious contrast in tastes and textures. A small mound of fresh mache, not a bit overdressed, complemented the plate. It was so good, I wished two were on offer.

Edward enjoyed the arugula salad ($6) prepared with spicy baby leaves, thinly sliced tart Granny Smith apples and bits of Italian gorgonzola and dressed in a light white balsamic vinaigrette. I tasted the salad and particularly liked the contrast of tastes and textures here as well. Dorothy’s house salad ($6) was a mound of seasonal mixed greens with ripe plum tomatoes and a scattering of garbanzo beans. Like Edward and I did, she finished everything on her plate.

As we enjoyed our antipasti (Dorothy did not know I was a restaurant critic), she told us she sold her home in Mt. Airy and moved to Bella Vista in 1969 because the area offered so much musically and culturally. She told us she took Italian lessons (Dorothy is not Italian American), and has visited Italy 37 times.

We wanted to share a pasta, and all sounded very tempting. We split an appetizer portion ($8) of farfalle prepared with heirloom tomatoes, snips of aromatic fresh basil and just the right touch of garlic, bathed in a light olive oil sauce. Each portion arrived in a pretty square dish. Here is a fine example of how something so simple can be so delicious.

Atlantic salmon ($17) consisted of two good-sized pieces of filet wrapped in pancetta, the unsmoked bacon of Italy. Edward and I found the fish to be a bit salty and overcooked. But wait until I tell you about the potato salad. The salmon filets were set on a big portion of still-crunchy, tiny cubes of potato that were mixed with a bit of sweet red onion, topped with fragrant fresh snips of dill and bathed in a light olive oil. This salad was so fresh-tasting, I made a mental note to prepare some for the Fourth of July.

I love halibut because it is a light, meaty white fish that adapts to all sorts of ingredients. Vesuvio’s version ($19) was also a bit overcooked and a little salty. The menu states it was to be made with a horseradish potato crust, but I could not detect the intense flavor of horseradish nor potato. My plate contained two baby bok choy and a dab of tobikko — the minute, deep-orange caviar-like eggs used in sushi — and topped with a blood-orange vinaigrette. I don’t think the ingredients worked well in this dish.

I tasted Dorothy’s seared duck breast ($19), which arrived medium as ordered, but found it bland. I did not think the entrées were hot enough.

As we finished our wine, we noticed we were the only people in the dining room all evening. The bar was doing some business and, when we left, one couple had arrived.

Vesuvio is a good restaurant that has the potential to be even better. Leget-Sherman uses top-quality ingredients, but a bit more care is needed in the entrée department. Still, Edward and I want to return on a Wednesday night, when all wines by the bottle are half-price.

Service throughout our meal was excellent. Silverware was changed with each course, and wine and water goblets were filled at the appropriate moments.

We learned that Vesuvio also serves Sunday brunch. That’s good, but Edward and I will give Dorothy a call and ask her to join us. Unless she’s in Italy at the opera.

Two tips of the toque to Vesuvio.