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Vitello's Offers History Lesson in Resilience

Italian eatery outgrew its submarine sandwich shop roots to become Tujunga Village landmark.

Decades before Tujunga Village became one of the Valley's trendiest retail stretches, the Restaurant That Would Be Vitello's took shape in Studio City a few doors north of Woodbridge Street. 

There, during the '60s, a baker from New York named Sal Vitello opened the doors of a modest subway sandwich shop. As North Hollywood resident Norton Flynn remembers it, "Sal looked and acted like Carmine, the guy from Laverne and Shirley." 

Flynn's father, Harry, noted, "Sal baked the best bread.  I know the neighborhood is very chic now, but back then it wasn't chic at all." 

Vitello later moved his operation across the street, and in 1977 he  sold his restaurant to the Sicilian-born Restivo brothers. Joe Restivo, a part-time stand-up comedian, and his brother Steve previously ran an Italian eatery in Chicago before moving west to set up shop in the San Fernando Valley.

The brothers practiced a rough-hewn management style, according to current 's owner Matt Epstein. "I remember one summer afternoon about 25 years ago, I went to Vitello's with my sister-in-law," said Epstein, who grew up in Sherman Oaks. 

"I'm 6-foot-3, I got long legs, so as I'm sitting there I put my leg across the booth, relaxing," Epstein recalled. "Steve came over to the table, grabbed my foot, threw it to the ground, whipped me around, and barked, 'I wouldn't come into your house and put my feet on your couch!' They were old-school Italians, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way at all. You either loved those guys or you could get up and walk out. They didn't care.  It was their joint."

The Restivos made it work. Vitello's became a hangout for the Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra's autographed 8x10 still occupies a place of honor on the restaurant's wall of fame—and attracted TV talent who'd drop by for a plate of pasta after taping shows at Studio City's  Studios lot or on Universal City sound stages.

The foyer wall remains decorated with glossy photos of  star Frankie Muniz, Jack Klugman, Michael Landon, Scott Baio and Melissa Joan Hart, who personalized her Sabrina the Teenage Witch publicity picture by writing "Your cannollini rocks!"

In 2001, the restaurant's celeb cachet became common knowledge on a national scale after actorin the couple's car following a dinner at Vitello's.  

The Bonnie Bakley incident was not the only celebrity-related killing connected with a San Fernando Valley Italian restaurant.

"Ventura Boulevard was a hangout for the L.A. Mafia in the '50s and '60s," according to historian Kevin Roderick. As reported in his book The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb, Rondinelli's made headlines in 1959 when a gun that had belonged to Lana Turner's boyfriend Johnny Stompanato was found in a nearby dumpster after Jack "The Enforcer" Whalen inside the Sherman Oaks watering hole while sitting next to mobster Mickey Cohen.

After surviving years of tabloid scrutiny for the Blake connection, the brothers sold Vitello's in 2005 for $3.1 million to Epstein. The Sherman Oaks homeboy made his play partly motivated by affection for the restaurant he'd grown up with. 

"I knew a couple of developers were looking at Vitello's and the parking lot next door as a potential development site to tear down," Epstein said. "I made an offer on the property and bought the real estate to really protect this place and make sure the restaurant continues on for generations to come."

A month of Vitello's . . .

Last Week: 

Also

Next Week: Vitello's, the music

Week 4: Vitello's future.

John May 11, 2011 at 08:20 PM
We have lived in the area 40 years and we both like Little Toni's better....
Cat Jagger-Pollon May 11, 2011 at 08:41 PM
I was there, singing almost every opera night through the 90's and early 2000's. I knew Robert Blake who was kind and generous. I really liked the Restivos and I liked their attitude. There were tough and kind at the same time. I didn't know that Joe passed away. I'm so sorry. Thanks to the new owner who bought it to save it from being another victim to so-called "progress".
P Wilson May 13, 2011 at 01:10 PM
I used to eat there when the Restivo's owned the restaurant. Everything was good,service was great and Steve and Joe made everryone feel like family. The new owners don't have that touch and the food just can't compare to the Restivo's. Luckily for me, and my family, Steve's son Vince has re-opened in Thousand Oaks. Everything is as it was! Delicious and wonderful service!
Kimberley Fuller June 24, 2011 at 03:26 PM
Great bartender - although we were the only ones at the bar, which was a little lonely and a bit odd. Our server was very friendly and attentive. But I have to say, the food was extremely disappointing. We had to send back our carpaccio - which had obviously been sitting around in the fridge for some time. It was stuck to the plate, cold, and tasteless. Papadelle with truffle sauce was okay, but some of the pasta was undercooked. Not sure if we will go back - will maybe try it for lunch
shari bender June 25, 2011 at 06:53 PM
My family and I have been going to Vitello's for over 20 years. We always had our same booth, and Steve and Joe always demanded the very best of their servers. Steve would think nothing of yelling "hey, 3 ice tea's over here, what's taking so long?" He made sure you were taken care of and while they could be gruff, you never doubted that they genuinely liked you and appreciated your business. At the same time, if a customer was ever rude to one of the servers, Steve or Joe would think nothing of stepping in and telling the customer off and to never come back. They had their employees backs as well. When my sister was diagnosed with cancer and going through chemo, Steve would sit at the table with us, and just ask what she wanted to eat. The food would just keep coming. Finally he would send her home with his homemade cannoli's. When she passed at the age of 40, he attended the funeral and grieved with us. And when Joe got sick and passed away, it was difficult to watch, as anyone who knew Steve and Joe, knew the deep love they had for one another. Steve and Joe created so much more than just a restaurant. They created a home away from home, with an unpretentious atmosphere, good old fashion food, tough love and an honesty and integrity that showed in everything. While the new owners are spending a lot they don't have heart. The few good souls that remain from yesteryear, are slowly being shown the door. Perhaps the new owners need an ole kick in the butt. Shari Bender

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