SEBASTIAN — Question: With no shortage of excellent Italian restaurants in Vero Beach, why would you want to drive up to Sebastian to try The Italian Cousin? Answer: Recently opened by the husband of a past winner of Vero’s Top Chef competition, you’d have to guess the food might be pretty darn good. And you’d be right.
This isn’t fancy Italian dining. It’s more your neighborhood Italian place – the kind of place many of us remember from up north, featuring home-cooked Italian food.
The Italian Cousin is located in the nondescript building set back from U.S. 1 formerly occupied by Chef Michele Hennessey’s River Grille.
While Michele closed her highly successful restaurant last summer to spend more time with her kids, on most nights she still pops into The Italian Cousin – this past Thursday with her young son in tow, who had just gotten all “A’s” on his second grade report card – to chat with regulars.
And while husband Gus, himself a chef for years, is the mainstay of The Italian Cousin kitchen, Michele confessed she does help out with the sauces (which are excellent).
Look & Feel: If you remember the River Grille, the dining room doesn’t look very different now than it did before. But the restaurant has a warmer feel – an Italian vibe – and the sounds of people enjoying themselves add to an atmosphere that makes you feel like part of the family.
Food: On a couple of visits, we tried several of the appetizers. My husband’s favorite was the stuffed clams with bacon, spinach, artichokes and cheese ($7.95).
My choice would be the fresh mozzarella Caprese with roasted peppers and tomatoes ($6.95). This is one of the simplest and most delicious of salads, and The Italian Cousin’s rendition was excellent.
We also tried both of The Italian Cousin’s soups – a very good variation of Italian wedding soup, and a tasty tomato bisque.
For entrées, we tried on various evenings the Cousin’s veal ($22.95), the linguini in white clam sauce ($17.95), the shrimp scampi with linguini ($18.95), the spinach and eggplant lasagna ($14.95), the veal parmesan with spaghetti ($21.95) and the sausage and meatball rigatoni with pepper and onions ($15.95).
While I liked the shrimp scampi, my favorite was the Cousin’s veal, fork-tender slices of veal served with roasted peppers, artichokes, spinach, tomatoes, gorgonzola and long-cut ziti.
My husband was torn between the linguini in a well-spiced clam sauce, and the very good sausage and meatball rigatoni.
While we normally pass on desserts, on one evening we shared the lemoncello mascarpone cake ($4.95), which was as good as it gets.
Drink: The Italian Cousin has a growing selection of nice wines at affordable prices, and the restaurant is hoping to soon have a full liquor license.
Service: Servers were friendly and attentive, and eager to go back to the kitchen and ask questions when they didn’t have the answers.
Prices: Prices are very reasonable, with many entrées priced from $14.95 to $17.95 (including soup or salad). Dinner for two with a couple of glasses of beer or wine should run in the $60 to $70 area before tax and tip.
Initial impressions: Based on a couple of early visits, The Italian Cousin is a very good “neighborhood” Italian restaurant.
But it’s a fairly small restaurant, and at the moment The Italian Cousin isn’t taking reservations (they want to keep this a neighborhood place where people “drop in,” but may begin taking reservations when a second large dining room opens).
So far we haven’t encountered any waits, but you might want to call and get a sense of how crowded it is before driving up from Vero.
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The reviewer is a beachside resident who dines anonymously at restaurants at the expense of Vero Beach 32963.