SALT LAKE CITY — Born in Italy, trained in Sardinia, London, Paris, Nairobi and New York, restaurateur Valter Nassi came to Salt Lake City 16 years ago to open an upscale Tuscan eatery that through no fault of his own barely lasted a year.
After that, he did something absolutely and totally unexpected
The world was his oyster on the half shell, but Salt Lake City became his chosen home.
“It is not Salt Lake City,” Valter proclaims, his hands waving about as if he’s guiding a plane to a landing. “It is Salt Lake My City. Do you understand? Salt Lake My City. Wow!”
Few sons from elsewhere have taken over a place quite like Valter has Salt Lake City. In 16 short years, he has become a local institution, the city’s most celebrated raconteur and bon vivant. Our very own godfather.
It started with Il Sansovino, the aforementioned Tuscan restaurant that opened in 1998 in conjunction with the brand-new 25-story American Stores Building on Main Street.
The restaurant disappeared when American Stores sold out to Albertson’s and vacated the premises.
Valter next emerged at the celebrated Cucina Toscana, a restaurant he and his outsized personality ran for 12 award-winning years on Pierpont Avenue.
His latest enterprise is Valter’s Osteria, the restaurant he opened two years ago at 173 W. Broadway.
At every stop, his enthusiasm has never flagged. Flanked by a menu consisting of his own recipes and by the fresh flowers he insists on every day, he greets guests like long-lost relatives. He tells stories. He laughs. He charms. He hugs. He raves about the fantastic food. He bids a fond farewell.
You know that guy in the movies who knows everyone who comes in his restaurant? That’s Valter.
His training began when he was a boy growing up in the old country in the village of Monte San Savino (it was the namesake for his American Stores restaurant), a half hour from Florence, and his father, Coraggio, a poultry and cheese distributor, first taught him about food service. Later, an uncle, Renato, managed a top restaurant in the tourist retreat of Costa Smeralda in northern Sardinia and summoned Valter there, where he was schooled in every facet of the trade, from server to waiter to chef to all points in between, including learning the three languages of food: French, English and Italian.
That led to postings around Europe and finally to a resort property in Nairobi, Kenya, where he met his American wife, Phyllis, a geologist who was on expedition in Africa. They have one son, Enrico.
The family came to America in the 1980s, where Valter managed Castellano, a decorated Italian restaurant on 55th Street in Manhattan. It was there that he met and became friends with Vic Lund, CEO of Salt Lake-based American Stores, who was so captured by Valter’s larger-than-life persona that Lund asked Valter to design and manage the signature restaurant at the new American Stores headquarters building then under construction on Main Street. Little did either of them realize that the company, and the building, would soon be bought out.
The business may not have lasted but the relationship did. In 2012, it was Lund who came up with the funding to open Valter’s Osteria, an enterprise the two of them own 50-50.
Over a plate of homemade ravioli at the Osteria, the Deseret News was able to sit down recently and have a conversation with Salt Lake’s preeminent host. The transcript of that interview follows. Reading Valter’s part with an Italian accent will only increase your enjoyment.
DN: Sixteen years ago, you were suddenly out of work and in a city you’d barely been introduced to. What caused you to stay?
VN: I tell you something about that. The people. It is the people. That’s why I stay. I lived 15 years in New York and did very well, it was incredible, and I could go back because the company was giving me back my house. I could find everything in New York I wanted, but I said, "Let me think, no, this is where I’m living, this is my town." I saw and felt something here that was very good — for my son, and for my wife, my goodness, she was in paradise here. My father always said, "Valter, when you feel something good inside yourself, don’t let it to go." Yes, Dad, I will not let it go. So that’s it, we remain here. It is the truth. I am living my dream.
DN: It was your father who got you started in the food business at a very young age?
VN: My father was the greatest person in the world, fantastic, incredible. From the age of four or five he was always telling me, talking to me. He and my uncle, they were my teachers. They helped me to do what I do every day to enjoy my life. I don’t want to say they found for me a profession, they found for me a job. No, they understood the wealth that I could enjoy every day of my life by doing what I am doing. The restaurant business is the most fascinating business in the world.
DN: But first you had to pay your dues?
VN: You had to learn, yes. There was an apprenticeship. Six months in the kitchen, six months in the front, six months everywhere. You had to know all the vocabulary, the French vocabulary of the food especially. You had to know how to impress, how to move. Many people choose a college, and my college was that one. My college was the restaurant.
DN: Was learning to socialize part of the training?
VN: You learn how to socialize, yes. You learn when you serve you must have a distance of at least 8 centimeters from the table. You learn when to speak and when not to speak, to say, "Yes sir," "Yes ma’am."
DN: What in your view is the most important key to being a restaurateur?
VN: One of the must rules is to understand when is your moment and when is not your moment. Your job is to give and never to take. If you do not have inside yourself the gift to give, don’t be a restaurateur because it’s not your job. That is my opinion. Don’t confuse the word "give" in terms of material giving. Take it as a word that is spiritual. We give to be generous. We never, never say no. We serve, we serve, we serve.
DN: You and your restaurants have received numerous honors through the years, the most recent being the Downtown Alliance’s 2013 Achievement Award. To what do you ascribe your popularity and longevity?
VN: It’s about people. You have to give respect to them and you will get respect from them back. Celebrate the people and let them enjoy the magic. What more in life do you want as a human being than this? To create the possibility and let people enjoy.