Our dinner at Vesta began with apologizing and ended with proselytizing. "We're sorry," a server said as we sat down, "but the heirloom tomato panzanella salad isn't available right now. The tomatoes haven't been walked over from Brooklyn Grange." Like young children, Vesta's tomatoes need attention, care, and help to navigate Astoria's intersections. And as with so many kids these days, the veggies are in charge, dictating the terms of any interaction. "A commitment to a menu without borders," as the menu states, means our meal could, and did, move from Asia to Latin America to Europe; in fact, we could go anywhere here as long as the ingredients were fresh. And fresh they were. If they had been kids, they would have needed some serious spanking or time-out.
We began with a special, tri-colored cauliflower with a golden raisin dipping sauce ($9). As it turned out, "tri-colored" didn't begin to describe the green, purple, brown, yellow, and white florets we received, gently salted and lightly fried in tempura batter. The Japanese effect of the batter was offset by the Indian effect of the chutney-like sauce, but the crunch and crisp were 100% local.
As our second appetizer, we got a side of corn on the cob ($5), sprinkled with grana padano, Vesta's take on elote. Given the general grossness of corn syrup, it's easy to forget that it derives from real corn, corn such as this, corn so sugary you could sprinkle it on your cereal or stick it in your coffee in the morning.
The orecchiette with kale pesto and housemade pork sausage ($14) was a big bowl of nice. Shreds of kale tossed in olive oil do not necessarily pesto make, but nevertheless this pasta dish was like a stranger smiling at you on the subway, an uncomplicated gesture that makes your day.
At $28, the duck leg with plum sauce and a bulgar-and-mixed green salad, another special, seemed out of keeping with the more moderately priced regular menu. Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it was worth it, the duck brandishing the faintest char, the sauce straddling the line between too acidic and too treacly.
"Do you guys know about baby Jesus?," our server asked us. As we diplomatically prepared a response to someone who was in control of our food, he quickly explained that he was talking about la torta del piccolo bambino gesu cristo ($6.50), the house special dessert also known as "baby Jesus cake." The name comes from an early dinner the chef had for his friends, he said, featuring desserts made by his mother. "Oh Jesus," people moaned, upon taking a bite of the almost crumbless date cake, now covered in caramel and served with a scoop of whipped cream. "Don't talk to me," one of us said, "I'm enraptured."
This trattoria sits on a busy block in Astoria. There are bars on the windows and a perpetually packed dining room. We drank glasses of Vesta's signature wine on tap and listened to Jack White channeling Axl Rose. Although we weren't made mayor on foursquare, we did become co-presidents of the Clean Plate Club. With its passion for rusticity and simplicity, Vesta is best for: a date that's pure of heart.