Photo by Toshi Tasaki
“It was tumbleweeds in here,” says 56-year-old Carla Gambescia of her restaurant’s opening in Mount Kisco in September 2008. Gambescia, a Chappaqua resident, waited 15 years to open Via Vanti!, but her plans never accounted for the worst financial crisis this side of 1930 unraveling the very same week she opened the doors to her restaurant. Neverhtless, she held together a crew of 12 through a nine-month period of virtually no business by staying positive and winning her staff’s buy-in for the Via Vanti! vision.
Today, it’s not uncommon for Via Vanti! to seat 120 tables on a busy night. And at any given moment, the exuberantly decorated, Italian-themed restaurant is brimming with gelato-seekers and hungry commuters (it’s located in the Mount Kisco Metro-North station). But more importantly, Via Vanti! is filled with many of the same faces who, inspired by her resilience, waited patiently for the turmoil to pass and for Gambescia’s dream restaurant to emerge as the successful enterprise it is today (tied as the highest Zagat-rated restaurant in Mount Kisco—for food and the homemade gelato).
“On a scale of one to ten, Carla’s vision is a sixteen,” says General Manager Scott Mason. Her vision permeates every cranny of Via Vanti!. If you’re not interested in Italy, steer clear—you won’t like the décor, food, vibe, events, etc. “Her vision is very well laid out,” Mason says. “She wanted us to be a cultural hub, where we celebrated all aspects of Italy.” Gambescia has managed to convince patrons to participate in her annual Flavor of the Month contest in which dog owners compete to best match their dog’s outfit to a theoretical gelato flavor (Firedog Fudge Fantasy, anyone?). Yes, the scope of the Via Vanti! idea is vast, from the cookbook writers she hosts for evening soirées, to the laminated “edutainment” cards on the tables that share whimsical tidbits about Italian culture and language. But these ideas didn’t appear out of thin air—they were born from those first nine months when, rather than panic, Gambescia led an impromptu period of staff/business development.
“I think that the crisis made us stronger as a team, and it made the idea stronger,” says Gambescia. “It allowed us to coalesce around our goals for what we want Via Vanti! to be.” Instead of plotting a flight to busier restaurants, employees were busy “doing things.” Says Gambescia, “They’d kind of look at me to see what I was thinking, and I’d say, ‘Let’s make smoothies.’” Smoothies were concocted, pizzas created (The Beatrice pizzette was hailed by the New York Times as a “diminutive feast.”), and martinis assembled. “We tried to think about things we could actually act on, and it gave us a sense of control; it gave people a focus,” she says. “It created a team spirit.”
She continues: “Someone else might have cut staff, but the team thing was happening and I had to keep investing in the team.” Says Manager Andi Tropiano, “She made us feel a part of everything. I don’t know how the hell she did it, but she was the backbone for all of us.”