"Vicoli’s keeps Murphy Building dining space alive and serving

I love eateries in alternative spaces. Airport kiosks, grocery store delis and bus station automats all fascinate me with their ability to transform just about any spare corner into a busy snacking zone. When I was a child, nothing was groovier than walking down to the soda fountain at Harmon’s Drugstore in Oblong, Ill., to get a plate of fries and an old-fashioned Coke after a piano lesson. The women behind the counter always mixed the Coke from syrup and soda water, a bit like druggists fixing your prescription, stirring in a little extra syrup for me. I swiveled on the chrome barstool, sipping my sugary elixir, loving life.

Thus it was with a bit too much zeal that I headed down to Vicoli’s, the new Italian restaurant in the Murphy Building in Fountain Square, on a bitter winter evening with Virginia Avenue still packed in snow drifts. I didn’t have the fortune of dining at the lunch counter of the old Murphy Building when it was still a department store, but I love the aura of urban history the building still channels.

Tucked into what is now one of Indy’s most rambling and funky reclaimed art venues, the space has already housed a string of eccentric eateries since the building reopened, most recently the Caribbean-influenced catering operation Decadent By Design. Given this lineage, I certainly didn’t expect white linens and strolling violinists. But nothing prepared me for the situation at Vicoli’s, which has the feel of a restaurant squatting on a recently abandoned one, a restaurant put up in a hurry just to get food out to customers.

Tables clad only in red vinyl tablecloths greet you inside. Empty bakery cases and dimly lit menus on the wall make you wonder if this place is even open for business. A bare, unsightly interior wall, apparently built to hide the food preparation area, crowds the dining room. Only a series of faux-Cubist paintings from Big Car Gallery upstairs tells you that anyone gave any thought to the décor. What’s doubly amazing is just how unapologetic the staff seems to be about their humble restaurant. In fact, the cheery, accommodating crew seems almost proud of what they’re offering. Any shortfalls seem your problem, not theirs.

Vicoli’s primarily serves up pizzas, a few pastas, breadsticks and salads. As such, the place is less restaurant and more assembly station. Not once did we hear the sizzle of a sauté pan or even the whirr of a can opener letting us know that real cooking was going on behind that garish wall. Table service is equally basic. Don’t expect a waiter to greet you with glasses of water and cutlery. Only after you order at the counter do you get bottles of water or soft drinks, as well as napkins and plastic forks.

Salads, served in plastic takeout containers with plastic forks, were some of the best elements of the meal. A Caesar salad ($1.49) was drenched in a tasty enough dressing with plenty of croutons. The house salad ($1.49) had lots of crunchy carrots, though the dressing was packaged Kraft. Garlic bread ($1.99), made from hoagie rolls, was warm and crunchy, not dripping in butter.

Pizza toppings include a couple of curve balls like prosciutto and bacon, but specialty pies are a bit too expected: “meaty,” vegetarian, barbecued chicken. Arriving on a round of cardboard, our “Works” pizza ($12.99 for a 12-inch) had a generous mix of toppings, but the crust was unmistakably floppy and soggy, almost as if it hadn’t spent enough time in the oven. Sauce had a tinny twang to it that ached for some spice or herb. A “bowl” of baked ziti ($4.99) was actually a piping hot foil pan of pasta and meat smothered in a similarly acrid sauce. Cannoli were available for dessert, but we passed.

In all fairness, this place does seem primed to serve the snacking needs of people who pass through the building, and they’ve been open late various nights to serve art patrons in for studio open houses or Big Car events. A space so steeped in a neighborhood’s identity and color deserves better victuals and a spiffier environment. But at least the tradition of the Murphy Building feeding the locals is still alive. Here’s hoping that time will bring the building’s restaurant closer to its history.

Vicoli’s

1043 Virginia Avenue, Suite 6

317-631-5113

Hours

Mon. - ThuR.: 11a.m. - 8:30pm

Fri. - Sat.: 11a.m. - 9:30p.m.

Food: Two stars

Atmosphere: One star

Service:Three stars

Non-smoking

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