Slice of Italy on the Square

(This article originally appeared in 2007 in the Pulse/Downtowner, a weekly news-magazine, which is no longer published.)

By Jessie Gridley

DOWNTOWN—For months, Florence, Italy, natives Nicola Pietoso and his son Cristian would sit at Palomino across from Fountain Square to watch Via Vite’s progress, as they stirred new ideas for the recently-opened Italian bistro while sipping on their drinks.

“Hey Ciccio (pronounced chee-cho,)” bellows Nicola, a nickname for his son, meaning “buddy” in Italian. He firmly grabs Cristian’s shoulder and laughs, while standing on the second floor of Via Vite, which is set aside for private parties and happy hours. Their customers will soon be able to enjoy made-to-order, freshly pressed paninis and pizzas.

“This guy will inherit all my debt,” he jokes, though he’s half-way serious because he has borrowed what Cristian estimates as over $1 million for the newly-opened Italian bistro.

Cristian buzzes with a contagious excitement through Via Vite, from the $21,000 dual-fueled, wood-burning pizza oven to the terrace that offers a bird’s eye view of the unfolding plans of 3CDC’s efforts to rejuvenate Downtown’s Fountain Square.

The 31-year-old looks cool as he sports a white-collared shirt. He moved here four years ago from Italy to join his restaurateur father as executive chef at Nicola’s Ristorante Italiano in Over-the-Rhine. It was there that in 1996 Nicola transformed an old car barn into a highly successful Italian restaurant that emphasizes the freshest ingredients.

Now, the two embark on a business venture with Nicola’s wife, Maureen, as the three managing partners at Via Vite, taking an entertainment and dining adventure that they call their largest yet.

“3CDC gave us the empty shell and then we designed everything,” says Cristian, who also will be executive chef at Via Vite as he is at Nicola’s. He credits his father’s respected reputation from Nicola’s in Over-the-Rhine as the deciding factor that resulted in their bid being chosen for the highly vied for 10-year lease at the Fountain Square location. “Can you think of a better location?” shouts Nicola.

Others interested in the spot included Jean-Robert de Cavel and Elliot Jablonsky, owner of Red, which coincidentally use to be Pane e Vino, a restaurant owned by Nicola.

“Last year, I said ‘we need to do something else. I don’t feel like I’m active enough,’” recalls Cristian, who received the news of 3CDC’s choice May 11, 2006, on his birthday.

“It’s a good fit to what is already there,” says Chad Munitz, 3CDC executive vice president of development, citing the opening of Morton’s and Boi Na Braza in Carew Tower.

Making it happen

The guys under the chef coats at Via Vite work side by side with managing partners Nicola and Cristian Pietoso to tediously unwrap over 80 modern terrace chairs in preparation for their grand opening. The Via Vite staff will combine seasoned Nicola’s veterans and new recruits with Pietoso family members from Italy and St. Louis, Mo.

“Oh Ciccio, thank you for helping out with chairs,” banters Cristian’s 23-year-old cousin, Dominic Pietoso, the Via Vite assistant manager.

Cristian stops and grins, breaking out his comeback, “Ohhh…poor linguini. That’s his nickname you know.”

The chefs in the background roar with laughter and shout back, “I don’t think this is in our job description.”

The vibrant executive chef turns around once more, tilting his head back sharply with confidence, “Hey, don’t I wash dishes when we don’t have a dishwasher? It’s all part of our final goal: To make our people all happy.”

Aaron Boehm, in the kitchen at Nicola’s for three years, will be the daytime sous chef. Tim Kleisinger, one and a half years at Nicola’s, will split his time between the two Pietoso-owned, Cincinnati restaurants. Meanwhile, Steve Anderson, a former Maisonette employee, has been training at Nicola’s in preparation for his nighttime supervisor role at Via Vite, and the restaurant also will brag Peter Sedgwick as its general manager. Chef Michael Messmer looks forward to using the beautiful state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment in the kitchen, which is completely open for the public to see. A kitchen tabletop, fit for five, sits directly in front, with a complete view of the chefs at work. And Cristian says that they are ready to give them a show.

Via Vite: More than just a restaurant

The name Via Vite rolls off the tongue in a way that makes any Cincinnatian wish they had an Italian accent like the Pietoso team.

“Nic wanted to have an Italian name that said something about Fountain Square. I wanted it short and snappy —cut it down to the essence, like the food and design,” dishes Via Vite Interior Architect Donald Beck, owner of Beck Architecture. A few Google searches, led Beck to pitch the snappy name to the Pietoso team. And it was just that: short and snappy.

As far as the sleek design, Beck says the three finally saw eye to eye after a trip to New York City, a first for Cristian, who admits he can be quite the night owl. It was in the meat packing district of NYC that Beck and the Pietosos saw venues that exhibited qualities that they hope will make Via Vite more than just a place to eat. Beck, who also designed Boca, Dewey’s Pizza and Nada, explains that a typical night out in Downtown begins at one dinner spot and then moves on to a totally different venue, like a bar or club.

“Here, your whole evening is one spot,” he says of the new Fountain Square hot spot with plans to offer night owls, like Cristian, a place to stay after they finish their cappuccino crème brûlée.

Beck first met Nicola six years ago when he “re-fluffed” the interior of Nicola’s. He has watched the business grow and flourish over the years, becoming even more successful once Cristian combined efforts with his father four years ago.

As time wore on, Cristian says the two would butt heads, but at the end of the day “work is work. I’m sorry, I still don’t agree with you.

“But now,” Cristian continues, “we’re on the same page.”

Nicola sweats over the progress of Via Vite just days before the opening. He gazes over at his son. “Since he came over, it definitely made my life much easier. He is the new generation of chefs. I am the old classic.”

It is evident during a dinner rush at Nicola’s that the “old classic” has not lost his touch when it comes to making his guests comfortable at either of his restaurants. He carefully parades the dining room floor, stopping to say hi to old friends and new costumers. He explains with pride and enthusiasm how his pasta-maker at Nicola’s, George Romero, hand-makes every single ravioli and linguini noodle before placing them on a plate with the freshest ingredients. Romero will serve as pizza-maker at Via Vite.

Then, using his peripheral vision in mid-conversation, he spots a discarded cloth napkin in front of the one empty seat at a packed table. The gentleman returns to his seat to find his napkin assembled in a perfectly folded triangle.