Jim Montalto writer
Frank Santonastaso couldn’t play baseball well enough to go pro, so he became a chef, and for that we should all be thankful. Whatever ability he might have lacked to make the big leagues, Santonastaso more than makes up for it as executive chef and owner of Vela, the newest taste of Italian cuisine on Wellesley’s main strip.
Vela’s menu is modern Italian, which, to Santonastaso, means blending his Italian upbringing with the culinary skills he acquired as a chef in California and then fine-tuned at cutting-edge eateries like Newbury Street’s Armani Café and the North End’s Lucca Restaurant, where he was head chef for four years.
His unique fusion of style is apparent from the very beginning of the meal, with the primi, or first course, selections. Considered a simple staple on most Italian menus, Santonastaso’s grilled flatbread is spiced up with goat cheese, olives, artichokes and roasted garlic ($8.00). The antipasto ($10.00), enough to satisfy two, is loaded with seasonal vegetables and Italian cold cuts and is served with a spread of whipped chick peas and pesto.
His California influence is evident in the mushroom lasagna, ($9.00), which has no pasta. Instead, crispy layers of potato are stuffed with spinach and wild mushrooms. A balsamic reduction adds a delicate sweetness to the multi-layered dish.
Seafood selections include tuna tartare ($11.00), which is accompanied by thin slices of salmon, cured in-house, with Limoncello, an Italian liqueur that gives this dish a deep, lemony flavor. The seared scallops ($12.00), sautéed in brown butter just enough to produce a slightly crisp outside and a firm, succulent inside, are placed on top of a subtle pumpkin risotto, then finished with crispy sage.
With the wide assortment and rather large-portioned primi dishes, one might be tempted to skip the pasta, carne, and pesce selections and go right for dessert, but that would be downright sciocco, or foolish.
Santonastaso serves up huge portions of his main dishes. Would you expect anything less from an authentic Italian kitchen? However, he shows a little compassion with his pasta selections as they all come in smaller sizes. These portions are big enough to eat as main dishes, but they do offer the opportunity to choose more than one, which is highly recommended.
Pasta choices, all of which are made daily, include mushroom ravioli, ($9.00 to $15.00), which is lightly crisped and served in a porcini brodo. The homemade fettucine ($9.00 to $15.00) is served with an extra-thick Bolognese. Here, the 32-year-old restauranteur again displays his creative flare by adding to the sauce shreds of wild boar, which have been braised for hours in a tangy tomato sauce. Not to be skipped is the gnocchi ($9.00 to $15.00). Sometimes served as a side dish, Vela’s version of these Italian dumplings includes broccoli rabe, sausage and caramelized garlic. Another twist to an otherwise ordinary dish is the fresh rigatoni, which will be available on Vela’s spring menu. The pasta is united with a sweet and sour sauce that includes wild boar braised for hours in vinegar and sweet peppers.
Those who dine at Vela will find a selection of chicken, pork chops, and beef tenderloin on the carne menu, but the veal osso bucco with root vegetables and parsnip purée ($30.00) is the dish, Santonastaso says, that best exemplifies his culinary technique of combining old and new cooking methods. He braises the veal for hours to produce tender, melt-in-your mouth meat, then adds his own twist by blending sautéed and puréed vegetables to the braising liquid, which produces a sweet, earthy sauce.
The olive-crusted tuna ($27.00), is a hearty, distinctive dish and one of Santonastaso’s favorites. The thick-sliced tuna, cooked to order, is coated with an olive mélange, mixed with an assortment of herbs and spices. A side of whipped cauliflower and baccala (dried saltfish), and the peperonata reduction make this an intriguing, yet delectable dish.
The wide assortment of Italian and American red and white wines makes it easy to find a perfect complement to any of Santonastaso’s dishes. The wine regions of Tuscany, Sicily, Piedmont and Veneto are well represented. It is worth trying Vitiano’s Falesco, a moderately-priced red from Umbria that offers a slight spicy flavor at first taste. The Coppo Gavi La Rocco is a light, dry white with an almond finish that goes well with antipasto, and chicken or pork dishes.
Any Italian restaurant would be remiss without an assortment of authentic sweet desserts, and Vela, (named after a restaurant that Santonastaso and his fiancé found while traveling along the Amalfi coast), does not disappoint.
The poached pears ($8.00), are soaked in Moscato, a sweet Italian dessert wine, and filled with cinnamon mascarpone and a citrus sauce. For Vela’s tiramisu, Santonastaso whips cream into the mascarpone, which makes this espresso-soaked dessert surprisingly light and fluffy. The panna cotta ($8.00), the Italian version of crème brulée, is blended with fresh vanilla bean, and also serves as a perfect ending to an Italian meal that mixes traditions of old with a flare for the new.