Even though NE 23rd Street is one of the most historical streets in Oklahoma City, many locals tend to forget that it’s also home to some of the most grassroots and homegrown eateries in town, the best having a specific focus on soul food, barbecue and old-fashioned Southern cooking. NE 23rd Street restaurants are OKC’s culinary history all in a few blocks and really should be revered as such.
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There’s nothing like a bowl of pasta and some fresh bread to warm you up on a bitter winter night. Throw in an intimate dining room and a bottle of wine, and you’ll forget it’s blowing like mad outside.
7521 N. May
Owner: Cathy Cummings
Food style: traditional Italian
Average price: $15
That’s what you’ll find at Vito’s Ristorante, a cozy Italian eatery owned by Cathy Cummings going on seven years. With black-and-white photos of her family on the walls and redcheckered tablecloths spread over the tables, this narrow dining room feels like you’re eating with extended family. That sensation is solidified by the exceptional staff and Cummings herself, who often can be found greeting her guests at the door with a big smile.
Italian food is in her blood.
Cummings said she grew up in the restaurant kitchens of her large extended family in Kansas City.
“(My mom) and my dad had a restaurant for 37 years, so that’s the one I kind of grew up in. We didn’t really have baby-sitters back then, so I just sort of hung out in the kitchen with her. I’d help her chop this or chop that and throw stuff in. It was amazing.”
Although Cummings never really thought she’d have her own place, she was spurred on by her husband, Sean Cummings, when he owned Boca Boca. (Sean now owns the Irish pub right next door to Vito’s.)
“I kept trying to put Italian food on the menu,” she said, “and he said, ‘If you want Italian food on the menu, go open your own.’” So she did, using the recipes and years in the kitchen with her family to create traditional Italian cuisine.
I recently visited with my husband on a blustery evening, and we tucked into the complimentary bread and dipping oil as we looked over the modest menu. That dipping oil cranks the standard extra virgin olive oil up a notch with a delicious paste of fresh garlic and Parmesan cheese.
“I make it by the gallon, and it’s really simple,” Cummings said.
To start, we opted for the crab ravioli appetizer ($8.95), a trio of lightas-air raviolis stuffed with crab and topped with a creamy pesto sauce — so, so tasty and not too filling.
My husband spied the Italian sausage that is available with the Fat Tony’s Pasta Special ($9.95, $11.85 with Italian sausage or meatballs). Being a Chicago native, he is forever on the hunt for good Italian sausage.He liked it so much that he stopped Cummings and asked her about it.
“Years and years ago, my family owned a little grocery store,” she said. “My uncle was the butcher, and he made his own sausage. I was trying to find that same flavor. Sean and I tried so many different ones when we moved here, and a guy from Syracuse (New York) showed me his (at a restaurant show). It had the fennel I was looking for. Flavor-wise, it was right on.”
That Fat Tony’s Pasta Special — named for an uncle with a photo on the restaurant wall — comes with Cummings’ sugo, which is a clean and simple red sauce that she said cooks for hours on the stove.
I chose the eggplant Parmesan ($13.95), which is three pieces of breaded eggplant topped with that sugo and mozzarella and accompanied with a small side of pasta and vegetables. It also comes with a house or Caesar salad.
The house salad is light and fresh, a mix of romaine, pimentos, artichoke hearts, red onion and Parmesan in an olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing — my favorite. On its own, a house salad is $4.95.
The most popular dish at Vito’s is also the most unique to the metro. Called chicken spedini ($14.95), Cummings said it’s a common dish in Kansas City that she brought to Oklahoma City when she moved here.
Chicken strips are tossed in Italian bread crumbs, Parmesan and other seasonings, then skewered and grilled over charcoal. Cummings adds a sauce, called ammogio, that is similar to the dipping oil.
“If you love garlic, you’ll love the chicken spedini,” she said.
To finish, Vito’s serves rich, Italian desserts. But Cummings’ favorite comes from a little closer to home. It’s called the mocha espresso Italian custard ($5.50), and it was invented by her daughter, Angelina. “My daughter helped invent this when she was 9. She’s 16 now, and I can’t take it off the menu because so many people love it.”
The dessert is like a chocolateespresso crème brûlée and is served in delicate espresso cups.
“Most Italian food is so simple,” Cummings said.
Simplicity seems to be the theme with Vito’s Italian food: just a few ingredients perfectly blended together to create comfortable favorites. As someone who grew up in a large Italian family like Cummings, I can attest that this style of food is what you’ll find around many Italian family tables.
Vito’s is open for dinner only, 5-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and Cummings said she loves sharing her family recipes with metro diners.
“It’s like everyone is coming over to my house for dinner.”