Vito’s Lowers the Volume
Kristen Naranjo is happy to have moved to a mellower gig on the Hill.
By Hannah Levin | Wednesday, Oct 17 2012
The Watering Hole: Vito’s, 927 Ninth Ave., 397-4053, FIRST HILL
The Atmosphere: “The Sopranos crash the set of Swingers” would be the easy shorthand, given Vito’s original incarnation as a gangster haunt in the early ’50s and its 2010 resurrection as a cool-kids’ cocktail lounge. However, the precisely calibrated balance between old and new struck by current owners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott (co-proprietors of The Hideout, located just around the corner) saves Vito’s from losing its sense of history (wood paneling and a saucy Sicilian menu remain), while improving upon what wasn’t working (the dance floor has been repurposed as a home for a grand piano). Tattooed 20-something lovebirds now canoodle over Vito’s legendary cannelloni, but lifelong regulars keep their space at the bar with deserved dignity.
The Barkeep: A smoldering brunette brandishing fresh-faced beauty and an unaffected, engaging demeanor that suits Vito’s perfectly, Kristen Naranjo is a veteran of the Seattle bar business. She accumulated serious trench time slinging tequila and Tecate at the Cha Cha (both new and old locales) and shouting over crowds swarming the bar at Neumos, but then moved away from high volume—literally and figuratively—and began working for Lundgren and Scott. After four years of tending bar at The Hideout, she started managing her bosses’ whole operation; her duties now include supervising the bar at Vito’s, hiring several new staff members, and revamping the cocktail menu.
The Drink: The Tom Handy. “It’s a take on the Sazerac,” explains Naranjo, deftly rinsing a chilled double rocks glass with absinthe before swirling a long-handled spoon around rough-cut ice cubes and two parts rye whiskey, one part cognac, a whisper of simple syrup, and a brisk sprinkling of Creole bitters. “It’s a really simple preparation and a totally stunning cocktail,” she continues, confidently placing the finished product in front of me with a generous swath of lemon peel kissing the frosty glass rim.
The Verdict: The wheel has not been reinvented, and that’s a good thing. This is the perfect whiskey cocktail to usher in fall’s chill. It warms initially via the obvious effects of cognac, but then unexpectedly refreshes, thanks to the beautiful harmony of dry rye and the slight anise flavor that comes through the absinthe.
Vito’s Is A Hideaway For Vegetarians, Too
By Gwendolyn Elliott | March 14, 2012 | Seattle Weekly
If the smell of baked veal and provolone doesn’t get you, or claustrophobia–what with its low ceilings and mirror-paneled walls–the newly revamped Vito’s is a great place to cozy up for a vegetarian friendly Italian meal.
OK, so it’s not an Italian vegetarian palace–as far as cuisine goes, this is a Sicilian-styled joint, so there’s plenty of Veal Cannelloni and Bolognese for all you saucy, meat loving Italian cuisine traditionalists. And, let’s face it, Vito’s is a place to see and to be seen, so dinner service can take on a bit of aloof hipster flair. But the night my boyfriend and I made a visit, the restaurant barely reached half capacity, and our server was pleasant, attentive, and knowledgeable. On top of the evening’s entertainment, there were more than a few surprising options for those of us who’d rather not eat a pile of baked meat and cheese, and we didn’t even have to modify the menu to get them.
For instance: the pillowy, generously portioned Gnocchi Verde. These hand-formed dumplings of spinach and potato were served in a creamy basil pesto sauce, and finished with a bit of grated mozzarella. Great texture, rich, subtle flavors, simple and delicious. After a light salad course–a basic house salad and a lovely spinach and arugula salad with shaved fennel and orange balsamic vinaigrette–we were primed for primi. And that’s where vegetarians have their pick–Penne alla Vodka, Fettuccini Alfredo, Capellini al Pomodoro, and the Ravioli of the Day, a daily special that’s usually vegetarian. When we visited, it was a pan-fried butternut squash filled pasta with pumpkin seeds, caramelized onions, and diced tomatoes. Veggie pasta jackpot.
Other than the Eggplant Parmesan, vegetarians are not going to get too far with their house specialties (where dishes like the cheesy Veal Cannelloni take center stage), but the pasta offerings–with a salad course, some of their house made bread, and a bottle of wine; we had a modestly priced, zesty Valpolicella–make for a filling, vegetarian Italian meal. The scenery, the rotating cast of house musicians, and that late-night happy hour (including a pretty famous, so we hear, vegetarian grinder), not to mention very reasonable First Hill prices, make Vito’s a sound choice for Italian food-loving veggies looking for a satisfying meal in the downtown area. And that free lounge-style entertainment is a good substitution for dessert.
First Hill’s nightlife history reborn: Vito’s returns to Madison
By Shalini Gujavarty | September 15, 2010 | Capitol Hill Seattle Blog
Are you a Mad Men addict? Do you enjoy a little Rat Pack glamour/danger with your martini? If so, you will want to mark September 16, 2010 on your calendar. Greg Lundgren, who co-owns Vito’s with business partner Jeff Scott, confirmed to CHS that Vito’s is set to reopen this Thursday at 927 9th Avenue.
We can only hope to create a new chapter in Vito’s history that holds equally colorful stories and experiences. By all measures it is a tough act to follow. But we have done our homework and understand this history and how important it is to so many people in Seattle.
We have been very careful to respect this history of food, design and entertainment to bring back the best of what it was without making it a caricature of itself. Vito’s was born squarely in the era of 1950s modern and cocktail culture, but we will not be running around with greased back hair and sharkskin suits. We are not Madmen, nor the Rat Pack or parked on the Vegas strip.
Established in 1953, Vito’s has been a longtime Seattle institution. In its heyday (in the 60s and 70s), it served as a social center for Seattle power brokers. Lundgren’s father, an attorney, frequented Vito’s in this era. Vito’s Madison Grill closed its doors in January 2009, shortly after a gang-related killing took place at the restaurant/lounge in November 2008.
In April 2010, Lundgren said that he and Scott had signed a long-term lease and would begin restoring and renovating Vito’s:
We wanted to reach out to the First Hill community to share our vision and commitment to providing a quality and safe cultural outlet to the neighborhood, and put to rest any concerns that Vito’s of the future will function like Vitos of the past 20 years.
As residents and business owners on First Hill, our top priority is to improve the quality of the neighborhood in all regards. We are well informed about the very negative history Vito’s has offered, and have an intelligent, thoughtful and dynamic plan for its resurrection. We have removed the dance floor and have purchased a beautiful grand piano for live performance. Our goal is to return Vito’s to the neighborhood, offer quality food, service and entertainment, and reach out to the three generations of Seattleites that hold fond memories there.
Lundgren subsequently revealed that he and Scott had signed an 18-year lease for the 927 9th Avenue space. They have hired Michael Bruno, former Executive Chef at Tango, to deliver updated versions of home style Italian food . The bartender will be none other than Justin Gerardy, who formerly managed the bar at Lundgren and Scott’s other First Hill business, The Hideout. They have also purchased a grand piano and have scheduled lounge singers (think Fabulous Baker Boys) such as Martin Ross and Sarah Rudinoff.
Vito’s doors reopen ‘officially’ at 4 PM on Thursday but reviews from a soft opening Tuesday night sounded promising:
At the pre-opening of Vito’s. Space looks fantastic, piano player tinkling away. Dinner, cocktail, and late night menus are expansive. Yay!
And, yes, the naked lady is looking fine (safe for Vito’s, not necessarily safe for work).
First Look: Vito’s
Alexandra Notman and Mary Pritchard | September 10, 2010 | Seattle Metropolitan Magazine
Three words to describe the revved up First Hill icon: “diverse, sexy, comfortable.”
New owner Greg Lundgren has big plans to turn Vito’s back into the classy cocktail lounge it was in the 1950s. “It will retain its original feeling,” he promises. Three words he uses to describe the revved up Vito’s: “diverse, sexy, and comfortable.”
The ‘90s were not good to Vito’s. After a solid 40-year run under the management of Vito Santoro, the Italian restaurant tucked at the corner of 9th and Madison fell into disrepair. A dance floor was added, club nights were the norm, and the term “dive bar” became synonymous with what was once a gem of First Hill and a frequent watering hole for politicians, lawyers, and priests.
Enter Greg Lundgren and his business partner of 17 years, Jeff Scott, the duo behind close-by bar the Hideout. Lundgren and Scott have signed an 18-year lease on Vito’s, and consider it their long-term project to “bring back something Seattle had before.”
“What drew us in was the history here and how many people have come before us. It’s totally worthy of taking on as a project and restoring [Vito’s] to it’s former glory,” Lundgren said.
And quite a project it has become. Lundgren notes a lot of work has been done to “fix the mistakes of the ’80s and ’90s.”
With one week until the grand opening on September 16, the restaurant is still a work in progress. But, Lundgren assures us “a lot can happen in one week.”
Bar Hop to First Hill’s Vito’s
Grace Geiger | February 2011 | Seattle Magazine
Vito’s Restaurant & Lounge opened its doors in 1953, serving Seattle’s power elite and, later, a sketchier crowd (which led to its closing in 2009). Last September, Hideout owners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott lovingly brought the First Hill hangout back from the dead.
THE VIBE: The low-lit Italian joint could be a set piece from The Godfather, with red leather booths, mirrored walls and a rotating disco ball over the piano in the lounge. Clinky cocktails and live music (on most nights) draw both regular joes and arty Cap Hill types into the old-school room’s warm embrace.
THE FOOD: Classic Italian-American fare is available in both the dining room and the lounge. Lounge menu items include a meatball sandwich ($8) and a Sicilian pizza ($5). Late-night snackers can subsist on small plates such as Roman bean ragù ($7), made with tomatoes, onions and rosemary, or sautéed mussels in white wine and garlic ($10).
THE DRINKS: A feisty list of classic cocktails ($8) includes the Naked Lady, with rum, sweet vermouth, apricot brandy, grenadine and lemon juice, and the Diabolo, with brandy, dry vermouth, and angostura and orange bitters. Wines ($5–$10) are mostly Italian, capisce?
THE BATHROOMS: The women’s restroom features a miniature statue of a nude male, and the men’s room boasts a rather provocative mosaic of a female senza vestiti.
Vito’s, Reenvisioned – Seattle Weekly
By Julien Perry | April 29, 2010 | Seattle Weekly
If you miss the back-booth deals and 50s nostalgia of the stalwart Italian joint on Madison known as Vito’s, you’re in luck–someone has swooped in to save the classic bar and grill that was shut down more than a year ago.
Greg Lundgren, who owns The Hideout, has purchased the space. Why?
“I think we just got tired of waiting for someone else to transform the space (it has been closed for over 18 months) and then after thinking about it, recognized how very possible it was for someone to do it all wrong,” says Greg. “As a resident and business owner on First Hill, part of it was knowing the neighborhood and knowing that it could be a great addition or a great burden to the area. My business partner (Jeff Scott) and I have been patiently looking for a new venture, and when we started really thinking about what we wanted, all arrows pointed to Vito’s. We wanted a place that strengthened the city core, but didn’t want to imbed ourselves in the main thoroughfares of nightlife culture like Belltown or the Pike/Pine corridor; we wanted a place that we could offer performance and live entertainment, but channeling Palm Springs lounges more than Seattle rock clubs.”
Vito’s opened in 1953, right at the dawn of 1950s cocktail culture and mid-century modern. The martini glasses on the windows are nearly sixty years old, says Greg. “They have been petitioning for sophisticated cocktails long before we were born and the club is so rich with history and legend that it has become an institution. Everyday we hear a new story, a new rumor, and unearth a little more of this history. The private banquet room alone has enough connections to illegal gambling and organized crime to write a book about.
“Greg says most of the work they’re doing is restoration and refurbishment. “It has been neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair. But while the furnishings are all being reupholstered and the floors redone, and the bar reworked and the kitchen updated (the list goes on), it is important to us that the older patrons of Vito’s past return and recognize and identify with the place. The nude mural in the men’s room is in fine shape; the burgundy seating is ripped and torn but will be replaced exactly as it was.” Greg says the only real major change they’re introducing is a grand piano. “The old dance floor (introduced in the mid 1990s) has been removed and we are using that space as a performance area – for jazz, piano men, lounge singers, R and B acts, and a few more experimental ideas. It is about recognizing what Vito’s is and was always meant to be – and hip hop and club promoted nights were never conducive to that environment.”
The new Vito’s is scheduled to re-open in late summer. “We are retaining the same, east coast family style Italian menu,” says Greg. “We will have a great wine catalog and be offering some of the best made drinks in town. It is a long term vision, and with a little bit of luck, it will be the lounge that we grow old in.”
Vito’s Grand Reopening on September 16, 2010
We are pleased to announce the reopening of Vito’s this Thursday, September 16th. It has been a hearty project resurrecting this classic restaurant and lounge, and we are ready to open the doors, feed you, entertain you and show you a really good time.
Everyone has a different story and a different memory about Vito’s. During our intense restoration, we’ve had people of all ages and walks of life drop in, send us emails and talk to us in lumber yards and antique stores about their astonishingly colorful, sexy, illegal, reckless and all together surreal experiences there. We were often asked, “Is it going to be the same?” and it is a tricky question to answer. Which decade are they talking about?
We can only hope to create a new chapter in Vito’s history that holds equally colorful stories and experiences. By all measures it is a tough act to follow. But we have done our homework and understand this history and how important it is to so many people in Seattle. We have been very careful to respect this history of food, design and entertainment to bring back the best of what it was without making it a caricature of itself. Vito’s was born squarely in the era of 1950s modern and cocktail culture, but we will not be running around with greased back hair and sharkskin suits. We are not Madmen, nor the Rat Pack or parked on the Vegas strip.
With Chef Bruno in the kitchen, the food is superb. With Martin Ross and Ruby Bishop and a host of some of Seattle’s smartest performers, the soundtrack is intimate, sexy and an alarmingly good fit. And the subtle changes, the restoration, the tweaks, the pleasant surprises, well, those are things we would like you to discover on your own.
Please join us this Thursday to welcome in this exciting new chapter in Vito’s history – in our history. It is not a reproduction, not a two dimensional stage, not a borrowed place, acting or wishing or trying to be something else. It is our history and the stage for our future storytelling, and once you take a look inside we think you will be as excited as us.
We look forward to hearing more of your old stories, but more importantly we look forward to making new ones. It is just the way Vito’s is.