Vito's recalls the era of the 2-martini lunch

Last week I lunched at Vito's with "the usual suspects" — not that they knew it. Every weekday they assemble at "their" table, tucked into the dim recesses of the lounge. Such loyalty is not without its rewards; the four $8.99 daily lunch specials at Vito's are named in their honor.

The usual suspects have been regulars for a good chunk of the 50 years Vito's has anchored the corner of Ninth and Madison. The restaurant was born in the Rat Pack era, when martinis routinely launched a business lunch and nobody cared about secondhand smoke — most preferred it firsthand.

Founder Vito Santoro, with his brother, Jimmy (and later Jimmy's widow, Eleanor), played host to the city's power brokers for more than 40 years. Doctors, lawyers, judges, cops, politicians, businessmen and sports figures packed the famously dim dining room and lounge, wheeling and dealing, schmoozing and boozing.

Since Santoro sold the restaurant in 1994, it has changed hands four times, most recently last February when Jason and Mija Yon took over. At first glance, Vito's looks much like it always did, a classic '50s-era dining room with tufted red banquettes, tassel-wrapped red-velvet curtains and smoked-glass mirrors marbled with gold. But about six years ago, the wall between the dining room and lounge was removed. A double-sided bar divides the two areas and a dance floor connects them.

If the glittering disco ball and the DJ booth seem out of place to those who remember the Vito's of yesteryear, so does the sign at the door: "Please put your gum in the nearest receptacle." Presumably not directed at "the usual suspects," the admonition must be aimed at the much younger late-night bar crowd that shows up nightly from 10 p.m. 'til 2 a.m.

It's a safe bet they aren't coming in for "Vito's Famous Cannelloni" ($13 lunch/$16 dinner), since the kitchen closes when the music gets going.

In the old days, the cannelloni was never listed on the menu, but the in-crowd knew it was always available if you asked. Rich and filling, the crepelike pasta filled with a creamy, nutmeg-scented mix of spinach and meat and blanketed with béchamel, tomato sauce and melted provolone is still a winner.

Another good bet is gnocchi ($10 lunch/$12 dinner). Slices of fresh mozzarella nestle on top of tender dumplings in tomato sauce kissed with basil and a touch of cream. They taste house-made, though not with spinach as the menu describes.

Fresh mozzarella appears in the caprese salad ($8) as well. Traditionally a pairing of the soft, creamy cheese with fresh tomato, this salad is mostly lettuce. The few slices of roma tomatoes are as hard as cucumbers.

Most entrees include a side of pasta (which varies in quality) and vegetables. Of the several Italian-American mainstays represented on the menu, veal saltimboca ($18) and chicken parmigiana ($13) are among the more successful. Flattened veal cutlets sautéed in butter, garlic and wine enfold sage, provolone and lots of excessively salty prosciutto. The chicken breast — pounded, breaded and sautéed — is topped with tomato sauce and melted provolone. Both are fork tender and hit the right flavor buttons, if a bit heavy-handedly.

Calamari al salto ($10) is a nice change from the deep-fried version ($7). The tender squid, zucchini, mushrooms, bell peppers, fresh tomatoes and herbs meld into a sort of stew that would be great over pasta, but instead is served as an appetizer with soggy slices of garlic bread.

The shrimp in the "Scampi champagne" ($13 lunch/$15 dinner) as well as the sautéed prawns ($10) have a gummy coating. The prawns flank a mound of fresh spinach tossed with the hot pan juices and chopped fresh tomato. The scampi is burdened with a heavy layer of sliced button mushrooms and a cream sauce that smacks too strongly of wine.

More subtle is the port-enriched gorgonzola cream sauce, but it smothers a dismembered rack of lamb ($20); less of the heavy pink sauce and these petite, delicately grilled chops could shine.

There is spumoni and tiramisu for dessert ($4.50).

After Santoro sold the restaurant, he still came in to eat until shortly before his death April 9, 2000. His portrait, and another of him and Jimmy, still hangs above the big round table by the kitchen door where he liked to sit: a shrine of sorts.

At 50, Vito's has evolved into a gathering place for a new generation of martini-swilling hipsters. But as a restaurant, it's beyond the September of its years, its customers dwindling to a precious few: the usual suspects; the pastor of a nearby church; a couple on a quick break from a hospital vigil; and a restaurant critic, sad to have missed the heyday of a legendary institution but happy to have tasted its memory.

I can't say I'd go back for the food, but then, going to Vito's was never really about the food.

Providence Cicero:

Vito's Madison Grill

927 Ninth Ave., Seattle, 206-682-2695


Reservations: accepted.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 5-10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; happy hour 4-7 p.m. Mondays- Fridays; bar open until 2 a.m. daily.

Prices: lunch appetizers $5-$10, entrees $7-$13; dinner appetizers $6-$10, entrees $11-$20.

Wine: short, inexpensive, Italian-American list, all available by the glass.

Parking: on street.

Sound: quiet.

Full bar / major credit cards / smoking permitted in the lounge only / no obstacles to access.