Italian mood, food delights at Via Sicilia

It must be the way the planet whirled last year: Three exceptional restaurants opened in Vista in 2008. We’ve reviewed The Jumping Bean and Royal Pho. Now it’s time for the third winner, Via Sicilia Ristorante Italiano, on 631 S. Melrose in Vista.
Co-owner and hostess Judith Lo Vecchio described the year as “very difficult” and when we dined on her wonderful sauce and eggplant, we couldn’t see why. “Fortunately, we have a 20-year business in Tijuana, Vittorio’s, so we didn’t depend on this restaurant to support us,” she said.
“Us” is her husband, Arcadio Valenzuela and her son, Richard. The latter was a training manager for Ruth’s Chris for 12 years and at one time or another, most of the five brothers and sisters were in the family restaurant business. “After retiring a few years ago, Judith and Arcadio unpacked their storage bin full of cooking equipment and began again. They weren’t ready to stop,” Richard said.
We were struck by the Via Sicilia décor. The name said “Sicily” but the décor said “Tuscany.” Bright orange/yellow paint, arches, shutters, an alcove for the kitchen entrance and restrooms, real cloth checked tablecloths overlaid with a white cloth center, and a stamped-concrete floor to resemble flagstones which “weathers with use,” Richard said.
The dining room’s long, narrow table arrangement is widened by shuttered mirrors, and a patio for outdoor dining (overlooking a children’s playground, not a parking lot) is decorated as beautifully as the interior. We gave the place an A for ambiance.
John got carried away and ordered Antipasto di la Casa for $9.95. The dish was hot and included the fried eggplant Richard used to stuff the Portobello Ripeno di Melanzane, another antipasto. Also on the plate were fresh spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic, fried red bell peppers, and black olives.
Letty was more careful and ordered the soup/salad lunch special for $5.95. Both orders were promptly served and first class. The soup of the day was lentil, and it was done in an Italian way with meat, olive oil, celery and onions. It came in a big bowl, too.
The salad contained plentiful spring greens and the house Italian salad dressing was delicious. Our waitress, Inez, grated a fresh hunk of parmesan cheese over our soup and antipasto until we said “stop.”
Richard told us he read our reviews conscientiously and knew we focused on budget meals, so he pointed to Lunch Specials on the menu and said many of the pasta dishes at $9.95 could be split for no extra-plate charge.
The Eggplant Parmesano was $14.95, and if this review had been fair we would have ordered that and split it, as we did at Nucci’s (another treasure, by the way) but as we said, John got carried away.
It seemed a shame to have pizza in an elegant place like this, but we noted a 14-ounce spinach and riccotta cheese was $14, as was a fried eggplant 14-inch, and a pepperoni and mushroom 14-inch pizza.
Chicken marsala would be our dinner choice for $14.95, we decided, with a vegetable side for $4.25.
This is certainly not Vista’s least expensive Italian restaurant. It’s comparable in price to Marco’s on East Vista Way (which isn’t open for lunch.) Like Marco’s, it has great ambiance and great family cooking. We decided that like Dell’z, it’s a “Date Night” celebration restaurant. After all, the president and first lady observe Date Night, why can’t we?
For more information, call (760) 631-4842 or visit www.viasicilia.com.

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