WESTMONT – What do you get when you cross an old-world Italian grandmother with a fire house cook? Answer: Bob Airdo, executive chef and owner of Vincitori Fine Italian Dining right in the heart of downtown Westmont. Convinced in part to relocate into downtown Westmont by former Mayor Bill Rahn, Chef Bob first opened Vincitori in 1998 in a south Westmont strip mall.
Enroute to work one day, Chef Bob was stopped by a freight train right in front of his current location and saw the for sale/lease sign. The rest is history with Chef Bob opening three days before Sept. 11, 2001. As a first night diner, I vividly recall the excitement, the crowds and the food. While the entire world would change three days later, it was especially difficult for a new start-up.
Over the next several months, like many Americans, Chef Bob toughed it out. Today, some 18 years later, we have a strong, well-run restaurant that greets you like an old friend. Front of the house waiters Paco and Antonio have been there since the beginning. The kitchen staff averages 16 years, and even the busboy, Javier, has been with Chef Bob for 12 years.
But it’s the food that keeps us coming back. Vincitori presents many everyday dining choices as well as exceptional selections. Want a $15 pasta meal, they’ve got it. Want a higher-end Frutti de Mare or bone-in pork chop, they’ve got them both, and everything in between. Want music, most Fridays and Saturdays you can enjoy the cabaret feel by dining in the bar. Here you’ll find booths, tables, TVs, weekend entertainment and good conversations.
Meals begin with freshly grated parmesan cheese, which has a nice sharp flavor and pairs nicely with the table top bottles of olive oil. Fresh bread arrives warm and sliced to the perfect dipping thickness. From previous reviews, you know I’m a dipper and I’m never far from the second basket.
Stuffed banana peppers are a good place to start. The peppers are grilled and stuffed with Italian sausage, cheese and spices. Finished in the oven with a ladle of marinara sauce, they are served charred on the outside and like many peppers, can be blisteringly hot on the inside. I love the contrast in each bite!
The pale di carne a mozzarella is a jumbo meatball that has been stuffed with mozzarella cheese, delicately breaded, flash fried to lock in the center and then finished in the oven. Served with an industrial steak knife for perspective, the flavors combined with the melting cheese, creates a memorable starter.
The menu’s No. 1 item is the namesake shrimp Vincitori, available in either appetizer- or entrée-sized portion. Shrimp are lightly sautéed in olive oil before garlic, cayenne pepper, Cajun seasonings and white wine are added. Moments later, the dish is finished with heavy cream, tomatoes, scallions, butter and Romano cheese. The sauce, with Cajun undertones, is one of the best I have ever enjoyed. More bread please!
Vincitori does a nice job on both full-size pizzas, which are available for carry out, as well as appetizer-size pizzas perfect for sharing at the table. Whole roasted garlic cloves deliver a sweet taste when combined with spinach and portabella mushrooms in the portabella, fresh spinach and roasted garlic pizza. Margherita, BBQ and other versions are also available.
The Burrata Bar is a great example of modern influences. Burrata is a freshly made Italian cheese with a firm outer shell of solid mozzarella surrounding a softer version mixed with cream on the inside. Several options are available combining the burrata with heirloom tomatoes, prosciutto, basil, roasted garlic, olives and EVOO…and there’s not a bad combination in the bunch.
Salad options run from garden and Caesar to full dinner salads with toppings ranging from caramelized salmon to lamb chops. The wedge salad with the optional bacon is a personal favorite. Robust blue cheese chunks, bacon, tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette crown a quarter head of chilled, iceberg lettuce. Perfect for sharing, it provides a nice change of pace between appetizer and entrée.
Pasta is synonymous with Italian restaurants, and Vincitori has a nice mix. All your favorites are here: lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli – seasonal and regular fillings. They are reasonably priced, available gluten free or whole wheat, and portions often allow for a second meal at home. If the ingredients are in house, they’ll even honor your special request.
Noteworthy is the caramelized eggplant and goat cheese, which combines the eggplant with spinach, mushrooms, onions, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini and corkscrew pasta. The dish is finished in a light, somewhat smoky (from the caramelized eggplant) crushed plum tomato and garlic sauce that is topped with goat cheese and pine nuts.
My other favorite is the gorgonzola tortellini. Gorgonzola-filled tortellini are finished with sautéed onions and garlic in a white wine cream sauce with Romano cheese and fresh mushrooms. The dish is topped with additional gorgonzola for added flavor.
The menu has enough options for a year of dining. Chicken, veal and pastas can be rotated to please everyone. Veal Marsala was served with five slices of fork-tender veal bathed in a rich, dark and slightly sweet Marsala wine sauce. The dish had an abundant amount of mushrooms and was sided with angel hair pasta. Grilled asparagus were a nice addition, both visually and flavor wise.
Lemon basil chicken with orzo and asparagus is a recurring special. The chicken preparation resulted in a tender and moist dish. While the sauce lacks visual definition, it pairs brilliantly with the chicken providing a nice, lemony contrast to the basil and cream sauce. Orzo is also a nice choice as it reflects the lightness of the dish.
There are also numerous steak and chop options, with the grilled pork chop Vesuvio-style a strong selection. The bone-in chop is perfectly cooked to order and has a demi-glaze made of pan drippings, compound garlic butter, white wine and herbs that take it to the next level. The chop can be easily picked up for the last few remaining bites, and the glaze provides a nice accompaniment for the grilled zucchini and roasted potatoes.
Frutti de Mare is a signature dish arriving in the largest serving bowl I have ever seen. Linguini forms the bed for a topping of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamari and lobster all in a light sauce made from crushed San Marzano tomatoes, chopped garlic, minced clams, a touch of red pepper and herbs. Even after four of us enjoyed this dish, the take-home portion weighed in at 3.5 pounds!
Desserts are made in house for the most part. A richly sweet ricotta filling is piped into a cannoli shell just before serving. Chef Bob’s cheesecake is perfect after dinner as it is a lighter version with hints of vanilla and for coffee drinkers, the perfect marriage.
Tiramisu is always offered, always homemade, and in the fall, pumpkin tiramisu makes an appearance. The pumpkin tiramisu has alternating layers of fluffy lady fingers soaked in Kahlua and spiced rum and whipped pumpkin cream.
While the cooking influences of an Italian grandmother and a fire-house dad created a strong foundation, apprenticeships at the Drake Oak Brook, Ritz Carlton and Drake Chicago and a five-year stint in California kitchens helped broaden both Chef Bob’s resume as well as his style.
In 2015, Vincitori was recognized as an OpenTable Top 100 Neighborhood Gem Restaurants in America, an award culled from more than 5 million reviews “honoring the welcoming spots at which diners celebrate both the everyday and the exceptional.” Additionally, Vincitori was a recipient of the 2016 Reader’s Choice Award for Fine Dining in Westmont.
With a menu rich in the basics and interspersed with creative options, a well-honed and longtime staff, Vincitori has all the ingredients for continued success as it prepares to anchor the downtown area into a third decade.
Where: 14 N. Cass Ave., Westmont
Hours: 4 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday
Dress code: Casual
Info: 630-663-9467, vincitori.com
Noise factor: Medium buzz
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