Love for each other and Italian cuisine keeps the Somma family cooking
By Jessica Koslow
On Nov. 1, Vito Restaurant will celebrate its 40th anniversary — and like every other person and thing in the world this year, it’ll be a pandemic birthday. But Giovanna Somma, co-owner of the Santa Monica restaurant with her husband, Roberto, has a lot to be grateful for.
“Of course, it’s nothing like it used to be,” Giovanna says. “But we are doing OK. Fortunately, we are lucky enough that we own the property and we created a patio. And we do a lot of to-go. We are fine, but it’s very weird.”
What used to be a fine dining establishment with low lighting and bar crowds has transformed into a 13-table casual, lit-up, heated patio area in the parking lot.
“I was very skeptical,” says Giovanna about taking the Vito dining experience outside. “I have a nice, elegant restaurant. And now I’m here.”
Giovanna is sitting at the edge of her patio. Her usual spot is at the front main door, where she and her husband greet customers seven days a week, from 5:00 p.m. till close.
She continues: “The idea to serve people in the parking lot was unreal. I almost didn’t want to do it. But people called and asked if we had a patio. We did it, and people love it. They ask if I’m going to keep it. I don’t think the city would allow us to keep it, and they say, ‘Let’s sign a petition. We really like it.’ It made me feel much better.”
“It’s more casual. It’s a parking lot. I couldn’t put waiters in tuxedos anymore. We give them a different look,” she added.
One of Vito’s regular pairs, an accountant who works across the street and her husband, still come every night. They have a special table with their own heat lamp. They eat something different each time.
“We’ve had our ups and downs. We haven’t always been successful,” says Giovanna, recalling that on their first day of business they sold one beer — a domestic beer. “But we haven’t seen anything like this. This is not just financial. After 40 years, we’re strong. This is more emotional.”
Luckily, the Naples-born couple counts adversity as a friend.
“I left my country when I was 18,” says Giovanna. “You have to learn everything: language, custom … Everything is different. It makes you a stronger person.”
Giovanna loves her restaurant and her family. Giovanna and her husband met when they were 15. (Roberto later tells me they met at 13 and started dating at 15.) They were best friends first, and they have a very special relationship. Her 93-year-old mother lives nearby, and her oldest child lives next door. Her family was her savior when businesses shut down.
“When all of this just happened, it was unreal. Just imagine for 40 years you get up in the morning, you grab your keys and go to work. And all of a sudden you wake up and have no place to go,” Giovanna recalls. “I was walking around the house. It seemed like I was going to wake up from a bad dream, like this wasn’t happening. This was the first time my restaurant was closed. We are open seven days a week. It was so strange. It felt like we lost the soul of the restaurant. It was very hard. I still can’t believe it that we are going through this.”
The family saw how sad their mom was and stepped in.
“My kids all showed up at my door,” she says, glowing. “We stayed together, and I cooked every day — two big meals a day, dessert. Having my kids around was such a joy. My son-in-law said, ‘I hope they don’t open the restaurant yet.’ It felt like when my kids were little.
“Even in a bad situation, you can find flowers coming up that make you smile.”
Giovanna has a lot to smile about these days.
Many things about her restaurant are still the same — her menu; the chef for the past 36 years; the devoted staff; the loyal regulars. Vito Restaurant is like an extended family.
And family takes care of family.
“Every day we measure tables because sometimes people move them,” explains Giovanna. “We make sure we have sanitizer everywhere.” There is a separate window for pick-up, which often has a line. COVID rules apply.
Hopefully, by November the restaurant will open for lunch. Right now, the offices in the area are still closed.
Tucked between a mailbox center and Juice Crafters on Ocean Park Boulevard, Vito Restaurant is an institution. People come for a special kind of experience: a little bit old-fashioned, a little bit lavish, but not too sophisticated for kids — which you see a lot of.
While the Caesar salad is no longer made tableside, it still tastes delicious at your dining table. Locals don’t have to miss out on their favorites: Spaghetti Della Casa, with chopped shrimp, sautéed shallots, flamed with cognac and a bit of cream and tomato sauce, and Linguine alla Pescatore, perfectly cooked with clams, shrimp, calamari and mussels in a marinara sauce.
While Giovanna has no plans to retire, she does hope her son will take over one day.
“I don’t want to think of retiring because I feel if I stop, I grow older,” she says.
But hearing stories about Giovanna’s mom, it doesn’t look like she’ll be slowing down any time soon.
“My mom is 93, and she still cooks herself three meals a day.”
Vito Restaurant is located at 2807 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. Call (310) 450-4999 or visit vitorestaurant.com.