To be perfectly honest, I should say -- lest you think me some kind of monstrous carnivore who has it out for the poor little calves -- that I'm not much of a veal fan. To my palate, meat not marbled with fat has so little flavor that it all tastes about the same, whether it's pork, very lean beef or veal. For another thing -- yes, I'll admit it -- I try not to think about those baby cows, raised in small quarters and fed milk so we can enjoy their tender white flesh. (I know it's no picnic for just about every other animal we slaughter for food, but there's something about veal.) But as a restaurant critic, I feel compelled to urge you to order the osso buco -- scruples be damned.
Originated in Milan, the dish is typically pan-seared, then braised for hours with olive oil, vegetables, wine, garlic, stock and grated lemon peel. But within those parameters, delicious variations can occur. The chefs at Villa Farotto flour the shank and deep-fry it for less than a minute, imparting a crisp crust. Then they braise the meaty hind shank in a pan full of aromatic vegetables (carrots, celery and onions, plus peppercorns and bay leaves), red wine, veal stock and a bit of beef stock for four to six hours. Rather than the expected gremolata (a garnish of minced parsley, lemon peel and garlic), this osso buco comes bathed in a rich jardinière sauce. Take that braising sauce, strain it, reduce it with some butter, then close your eyes and smile.
Special spoons, made especially for digging out the delicious marrow, were on order (and have since arrived), but that didn't stop me from using a knife to slather the soft delicacy onto a thick slice of olive-studded bread. You can be traditional and order the osso buco with lemon-infused risotto on the side. But really, who can resist a bed of garlic mashed potatoes? A bellyful of such hearty fare will soften the long, cold nights of the approaching winter.
I declined the braised-rabbit soup du jour at the start of the meal, fearing that consuming rabbit and veal in one meal might summon a tactical PETA squad. I opted instead for a warming bowl of brick-red roasted-tomato-and-pepper soup. With a drizzle of olive oil, the freshly puréed soup was hearty, with just a bit of zing. Another appetizer, a two-inch-thick risotto cake, was an ingenious combination of Italian sausage, Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and risotto (nothing but Arborio rice is used here, as it should be), grilled and placed atop a light, fresh-tasting red sauce.
Sipping my soup in the fine-dining "Vineyards" section of the restaurant, I bathed in the pleasant ambiance of the contemporary Tuscan design that co-owner Lisa Parrott LaRuffa and her husband, executive chef Gerard LaRuffa, spent two years conceptualizing. (Parrott-LaRuffa is the daughter of the owners of the Rock Hill Farotto's, long popular for its pizzas and casual meals.) Villa Farotto was built from the ground up, Parrott-LaRuffa says, and it cost more than $3 million, if you count all the equipment and accouterments.
Villa Farotto is really four operations operating under the same roof: the Vineyards, a spacious bar complete with fireplace, a separate café section serving lighter fare (envision the other Farotto's) and a market inside the café that sells wine and order-out cold meals.
The warm, earth-toned restaurant is expansive, with curving walls, large windows and a glass wall between the bar and the dining room. Sitting next to that glass wall, however, feels a bit like eating in a fish tank, especially when you and the person on the other side turn to face each other at the same uncomfortable moment, then quickly break eye contact and face forward again. The big-screen TV in the bar is visible from the dining area, something I usually despise, but this night I was happy to watch the American League playoffs from behind the glass wall, protected from any stray smoke emanating from the bar.
Beyond osso buco, there are many other fine meals to be had at Villa Farotto, including several pastas, risottos and gourmet pizzas. But meat and seafood were our central focus. I was at first skeptical when my friend ordered the twelve-ounce Bentley tenderloin (named for the car dealership around the corner), because I typically put that cut of meat in the same "not-so-flavorful" category mentioned above. But then the prime-aged beef arrived. And what a dish it was: perfectly grilled, juicy and glistening with a peppered-bacon, Gorgonzola and cabernet sauce, so tender a knife was barely needed, nestled on a bed of mashed potatoes. Later I was told that even with a $33 price tag, the dish is a best-seller. (An eight-ounce version is available for $26.95.)
Not that my sea bass was any slacker. Firm, moist and procured through Bob's Seafood in the University City Loop, the fish was baked in parchment paper with garlic butter, lemon wedges and two crossed asparagus stalks, then served on a bed of perfect risotto. I was looking forward to having the steaming packet opened for me tableside, as the menu promised, because there's nothing more pleasing than that first burst of puffy, heady aroma filling your nostrils. But alas, it came already opened, still deliciously fragrant but as deflating as finding out about your own surprise birthday party.
The wine list is understandably heavy on Italian varieties -- 38 in all -- with lots of Tucsans and Piedmonts. There's also a large assortment of cabernet, sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinot noir, zinfandel and chardonnay, numbering about 45 bottles. Wines by the glass will run you between $6 and $12 and are poured at the table. I found the servers knowledgeable about the selections and attentive to the vintages.
After that amazing osso buco, I was looking forward to the poached-pear dessert that I had heard about, but it was not available that evening. Instead, I opted for the apple financier, which is served with swirls of luscious caramel and topped with a big scoop of cinnamon ice cream. All the quality desserts are prepared off-site by the one-man operation Elite Desserts. We found both the carrot cake and the Amaretto-espresso-chocolate cheesecake (both $6.50) moist and fresh-tasting, devoid of any refrigerator staleness.
It would be easy for restaurateurs to open a big, splashy restaurant in west county, cater to the beautiful people and milk them of their cash without providing much substance. I left Villa Farotto feeling not only comfortably satisfied but pleased that owners who sank that much money into a restaurant's design and construction also put equal effort into its food and wine.