The Way We Were
In Alexandria, a neighborhood restaurant serves up a bygone era
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 8, 2007
When she bought the building that used to house the Dixie Pig back in 2005, Vasiliki Volioti discovered that while she could change whatever she wanted to on the inside of the joint, local preservation codes forbade her from removing the restaurant's historic signage. So, if you find yourself tooling around Alexandria in search of her spanakopita, you need to be on the lookout for a big porker, etched in vintage pink and green neon and promising "bar-b-q" inside.
The sign isn't false advertising. It's possible to order barbecue at the year-old Vaso's Kitchen. But to get to the best of the cooking here, you really need to read and heed the subtitle on the menu: "A little piece of Greece." The words are gently reassuring, and so is the story as told by Volioti, the "Vaso" in the restaurant's name. She arrived in the States from Cyprus in 1969, learned how to cook by working in an uncle's restaurant and ended up as a waitress at Mike's Italian Restaurant on Route 1 for a "Fantasticks"-like run of 26 years before she left to open a business of her own. Her reason for switching from taking orders to executing them was personal, she says: "It's easier to keep track of the kids," a grown son and daughter, both of whom were recruited, along with other family members, to help out here.
Not everyone is a charmer. The guy who drops off the bread basket won't meet our eyes, and one young waitress has the habit of acknowledging arrivals not with a "Hello" or a "Welcome," but with the more brusque "Our specials tonight are . . ." She's a little too serious, a touch too abrupt. Fortunately, the meals involved more grace notes. "Stay warm now!" another server called to a customer as he left with carryout one especially cold night. A lot of the people gathered at the tables here know Volioti from her tenure at Mike's, and when she's not making their meals, the red-maned chef is apt to stroll through the dining room for some chitchat. Throw in a little Dean Martin ("You're nobody till somebody loves youuuuu . . ."), and you've got a neighborhood restaurant that you might have assumed disappeared along with vinyl records and cigarette smoke at 30,000 feet.
The spanakopita will put you in a Mediterranean mind-set. The appetizer is four triangles of pastry wrapped around fresh-tasting spinach and tangy feta cheese. Somewhat lighter is a mint-fresh dip of yogurt, garlic and cucumber surrounded by thick folds of pita bread for scooping, and somewhat more homey is avgolemono soup, chock-a-block with rice and shredded chicken and yellow with egg yolk.
A Greek cocktail party unfolds on the sampler plate, where too-cold stuffed grape leaves share space with olives; roasted peppers; delicious cayenne-and-oregano-spiked feta; and the best excuse for ordering the assembly: fat, bullet-shaped corned-beef meatballs. Potatoes, eggs, parsley and mint (the chef prefers that herb to dill) give the snack heft and heart. I'm not sure what chicken wings are doing in the lineup, but they're plump and fried so that their crunch is audible.
A long list of specials supplements the standing menu, which includes a decent moussaka, and it deserves your attention. Chopped steak, as a waitress explains, is "basically a bunless burger." But what a burger! Seemingly a fistful of oregano, basil and mint, plus chopped onion and lemon juice, go into the thick and succulent patties, which are cooked over charcoal and served with a crumble of feta. Trust me, you won't miss the bread. Athenian baked chicken, expertly seasoned with herbs and wine, would be better with a few minutes' less time in the oven. But the veal chops punched up with brandy sauce pack a nice smoky edge, and their meatiness is echoed in the sliced portobello mushrooms that garnish them. If you like your meat on the rare side, make sure to tell your server; Volioti tends to cook everything "medium," including her otherwise satisfying lamb chops, robust with rosemary and tangy with citrus. Entrees are preceded by a decent house salad and accompanied by a vegetable of the day. As spring neared, it was a disappointment to get a big bowl of peas that smacked of having come from a can. The curious choice had the unintentional effect of whisking me back to my childhood -- and a table in the school cafeteria.
If you do not want Greek, you may be tempted to consider barbecue. Resist the impulse. Vaso's barbecue ribs are on the dry side, and their sauce tastes more of sugar than heat. The saving grace on the entree is a scoop of creamy cole slaw. There's very little seafood on the menu, and that should tell you something: Stick with turf. An appetizer of fried calamari is all hot crunch -- one of the least flavorful versions I've encountered -- but the baked flounder entree is a modest success, decorated as it is with crab and splashed with a lemony sauce of butter and capers. And you can pass on the pastas, given my encounter with limp spaghetti here.
The sleeper on the script is pizza. Volioti makes both the tomato sauce and the dough from scratch and bakes the pies in a 550-degree stone oven. They emerge with nicely browned crusts and just enough topping. I typically request the "Greek style," free of meat and full of flavor, thanks to a scattering of olives, garlic, feta and wisps of spinach. A dash of red pepper flakes gives each slice a gentle jolt.
The chef is clearly proud of her tiramisu, which she spikes with cognac (in the mascarpone) and Fran-gelico (doused on the lady fingers), as well as her phyllo-wrapped custard, shot through with rosemary and orange. Both desserts are superior to the chocolate cake, which resembles banquet fare, and the cinnamon-sprinkled rice pudding, served so cold one night that the grains appeared to have frostbite.
The low-ceilinged dining room is as comforting as much of the cooking. Pretty tiered curtains dress up the windows, and the walls are brushed with friendly shades of mint and lemon. Tiny white lights frame the mirror over the small bar, at which Volioti's young granddaughter might be found drawing.
More than anything, this restaurant seems to be the answer to "What do you feel like tonight?" for a lot of area seniors and young families, as well as more solo male diners than I've seen outside of a submarine galley. Vaso's Kitchen serves up not just "a little piece of Greece," but a nice dose of yesteryear.