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A slice of heaven


696 Park Ave., Rochester


When I’m looking to convince my out-of-town friends that Rochester can compete with the slick, cool cities they just left behind, I take them to Vern’s.

As you step inside, the smell of wood smoke and garlicky Sunday sauce fills your nostrils. It’s intoxicating, but that’s not the only reason I bring people here.

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Vern’s exudes energy, unlike the sleepy dining rooms that you might expect on a Thursday night. Since opening in 2019, it’s been a go-to destination for locals and visitors alike, and tables fill up fast.

Not being able to find a table right away, though, is part of the fun. I love coming in, putting in my name, then perching at the massive marble bar—or some ledge next to the bar—taking in the bustling kitchen and the expert bartenders crafting cocktails.

Co-owned by hospitality veterans Jon, Ashley, and Paulina Swan and bar manager Casey O’Mara, the restaurant is a nostalgic ode to the Swans’ cribbage-playing grandfather Vern. They designed the space to feel warm and welcoming, reminiscent of holiday gatherings at their family’s home in Jamestown.

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The Lil’ Edie pizza

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Espresso martini

“At my grandmother’s Christmas parties, we would get all the families together in this little house,” Jon Swan remembers. “It was tight, and we packed in thirty-five to forty-five people. The kitchen was where everybody wanted to be.”

The team worked with local artist Thievin’ Stephen to craft a mural inspired by the floral wallpaper in their kitchen. They recreate that feeling by connecting an open kitchen to the bar—the star of this space—and orienting everything around it.

“That’s Grandma and Grandpa working next to each other,” he says. “He’d be mixing the drinks, and she’d be stirring the sauce.”

Every seat at the bar provides a view of the action, whether it’s elegant couples sipping cocktails from intricate glassware or a steaming dish of herbed littleneck clams emerging from the kitchen. You feel like you’re in the center of a great dinner party.

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The menu represents the Italian flavors the siblings remember from childhood but with a contemporary twist. The shared plates are the perfect way to experience the locally sourced ingredients and innovative combinations.

“We travel a lot,” Swan says. “We appreciate tradition, but we’re not hard-set on completely following the rules. We like to apply culinary techniques and other flavor profiles from our travel experiences.”

Take, for example, the Spicy Lettuces ($14). It’s a nest of seasonal greens tossed in a tahini Caesar dressing and showered in black sesame seeds and parmesan. It lacks many ingredients you might expect from the classic, but it’s creamy, savory, and has an addictive crunch.

The Lost Meatball Ragu ($24), the restaurant’s most popular dish, is another one with a playful twist.

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Lost Meatball Ragu

“Everybody does meatballs in town,” Swan says. “We’re not trying to step on toes.”

So here comes the wink: Rather than put meatballs on the plate, like his grandma did, the ground veal and pork form a hearty ragu. There’s no actual meatball there, but the dish is all the better for it. The fat lumache elbows scoop up the sauce and dollops of fluffy ricotta.

Pizzas are another place where the restaurant’s creative flare runs wild. Sure, duck and foie sausage ($18) or leek and lemon mascarpone ($18) might not be toppings you’re used to seeing on a pizza. But that’s what makes them so great. They’re inventive, surprising, and, most importantly, they work.

These thoughtful combinations of flavors and textures elevate the humble Neapolitan-style pie to new heights and make it feel different from its sister restaurant Swan Dive.

Finally, who could forget dessert? The confections change frequently, but if you’re lucky, you’ll get to indulge in the olive oil cake topped with fruit compote ($10) or the pillowy zeppole ($10) paired with sticky, drizzled custard.

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Lemon poppy seed/rosemary olive oil cake

What sets this place apart from other restaurants is its genuine sense of community. I always seem to run into someone I know working behind the counter or grabbing drinks with friends.

From the friendly bartenders and servers who provide spot-on recommendations to the inside jokes shared with regulars, Vern’s feels like a personal neighborhood spot, even if it’s your first time there. The staff provides spot-on recommendations for what to order, but they’re also quite friendly.

Finding a restaurant that feels genuinely part of the community is rare, but that’s precisely what Vern’s is. The owners and staff are passionate about what they do, and it shows in every detail, from the design to the menu.

There’s a lot to love about this thoughtful eatery, and it can contend with any hot spot, bar none.

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