Viva Italia (Eagan, MN)
By Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
We have a love/hate relationship with Italian food. It can be so very good, and it's so easy to do a bad job with. For the most part, Viva Italia doesn't let its reach exceed its grasp.
By all means, start with the garlic cheese bread. It's intensely garlicky, and with that delicious marinara sauce spooned on top, you'll get a starter much better than the pizzas, which we didn't like. We're not fans of thick chewy pizza crusts. We loved the generous scatter of basil atop the Margherita pizza, however.
On one visit, the soup was a slightly spicy tomato-based soup with green peppers, pepperoni, Italian sausage, fagioli, and small pasta shells.
Other appetizers are pretty good. We liked the salads, with the exception of the prosciutto bits on the Viva's salad. And the fried calamari are nice.
The simpler entrees are good. The pastas are delivered piping hot and perfectly cooked. Both the marinara and meat sauces are hearty and flavorful, and the meatballs are a little bland but okay. If you want something spicier, order the Italian sausage. The cheese-filled ravioli is excellent with the meat sauce.
We also liked the veal parmigiana. The cannelloni bianchi was okay. We liked the meat-filled crepes, but thought there was much too much cheese sauce poured over it. Ask the kitchen to go light on the cheese, and have your server sprinkle Parmesan over the dish tableside.
We have no such solution to salvage the chicken oreganata, though. It was simply a boring dish. Sautéed peppers and onions on a chicken breast: the dish has no glamour.
Everything on the menu is à la carte. This means that pasta with your parmigiana dish, which should be included, costs another $2. On the other hand, we didn't mind paying $5 more for nicely cooked vegetables: the sautéed spinach was good, and the grilled asparagus was exceptional. We recommend getting a couple of side dishes to share.
We recommend nothing on the wine list; it's a sorry page of lowest-common-denominator wines selected with no regard to matching the wine with the food. This is a shame, because inexpensive food-friendly Italian wines are easy to find. Unfortunately, selling them requires a knowledgeable server, because they won't be the easily recognizable common brands.
All the servings are large, and you'll most likely bring some of it home with you. Don't bother leaving room for dessert. The tiramisu and cannoli are house-made but too intensely sweet, and your other options are conventional choices from industry purveyors.
The dining room is pleasant. The earth-toned décor is unobtrusive, and the faux-ruined wall is kind of cool. The lighting is pretty, and the place isn't noisy -- even when crowded.
Viva Italia only takes reservations for parties of six or more on Friday and Saturday, so you might be in for a short wait. Ask for a table if you can; the booths are small and get uncomfortable during a long meal.
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