Cafe Vicino 

808 W. Fort St. 208-472-1463. Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Mon.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.

A confession: I committed the food critic's ultimate offense by going to review a restaurant on a Monday at lunchtime, which is typically the slowest day and meal of the week. So when I called to see whether Cafe Vicino was even open on Monday, I made a reservation for three diners, just to be safe. And good thing I did because the place was packed. This new North End gourmet nook seems to have hit just the right combination of terrific food at reasonable prices in contemporary surroundings, all in a convenient neighborhood location.

At the helm of Cafe Vicino are two talented chefs who share the same vision for using the freshest locally and regionally grown foods in their kitchen whenever possible. Chefs Richard Langston and Steve Rhodes met 15 years ago when both worked at the former Amore restaurant in downtown Boise. A few years later, when Langston opened the Hyde Park hot spot Richard's Across the Street, he called on Rhodes for assistance. They worked there for five years before moving on to other projects. Then, late last year, when the Boise Co-op closed the doors of its Flipside Cafe, they knew just who to offer the space to. "They knew that we had been talking about doing something like this," says Rhodes of his current collaboration with Langston. And, based on a Monday visit for lunch, the result has been both popular and delicious. When the duo considered a name for the neighborhood bistro, Langston came up with "vicino," which means "neighbor" in Italian. "The North End is a pretty tight-knit community," says Rhodes. "Our attitude is 'come as you are.'" The name Cafe Vicino fits.

The dining room inside Cafe Vicino is decorated in a clean, contemporary palette of ivory and black. Both the lunch and dinner menus feature scratch-made soups, salads and pasta dishes. Creative sandwiches round out the lunch menu, while tempting appetizers and meatier entrees complete the dinner offerings. At dinnertime, the Double R Ranch New York steak ($25) with pink peppercorn and cognac sauce is popular, as is the Draper Valley Farms free-range chicken breast ($18) wrapped in prosciutto. During the lunch visit, my two trusty testers, Dan and Jodi, and I had the good fortune of sitting next to a pair of familiar friends who openly raved about their lunch. One friend heartily recommended the prosciutto-topped Vicino Burger ($10) that came with warm gorgonzola souffle. The other friend gushed, "The creme brulee of the day tastes so good, I could roll around in it." We tested the brulee for roll-worthiness later.

There was no less raving at our table. Dan enjoyed the cup of tomato-basil soup that accompanied his quiche du jour ($7.50), which was nearly two inches thick and contained roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and spinach. Jodi really liked the cup of lentil soup that came with her sandwich of the day ($9), which had savory layers of turkey, salami and tomato on a warm, crusty baguette. I dove head first into a bowl of tomato broth-based cioppino ($13) and didn't come up for air until the last of the squid rings, plump shrimp, clams and mussels were safely deposited in my stomach. The brulee of the day ($7) was roll-worthy indeed. Sitting beneath a crisp layer of caramelized sugar were fresh raspberries that had been baked into the creamy dessert and a layer of milk chocolate waiting at the bottom of the ramekin. My little food critic offense turned out to be quite a revelation. With food this good, Cafe Vicino packs the front of the house on the slowest of days. Better call ahead and let them know you're coming.

—Jennifer Hernandez recently ran her first half marathon.

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