Keep calm and mangia on. The Italian eatery continues to flourish with new but familiar owners.
Photos and story by Brianna Caleri
Austin might not be known for Italian food, but one of its best restaurants is. Vespaio and its sister bistro, Enoteca, quietly changed ownership in January and transitioned smoothly into the hands of Executive Chef Ryan Samson and owner of Licha’s Cantina, Daniel Brooks. Fans of the enterprise will be relieved to hear there are no major changes planned.
Samson and Brooks were a natural choice for the continuation of Vespaio, after dedicating 17 and eight years, respectively, to the restaurant as chef and manager.
“You don’t celebrate years in a restaurant,” Brooks says. “You survive them.”
There had been two other parties in negotiations to take ownership of the restaurant, but when the two Vespaio veterans made their interest clear, Books says “it was a no-brainer.”
Vespaio has been an Austin staple since 1998, but originally was open only in the evenings. Clientele made it clear they were missing the food in the daytime, prompting the opening of the next-door Enoteca in 2005. According to Brooks, the mindset behind both restaurants is very simple.
“We’re just trying to honor the old-school recipes and do them with love on a daily basis,” he says.
Brooks explains what sets Vespaio apart from the modern Italian restaurants serving small plates in town is a commitment to traditional comfort food. Vespaio doesn’t aim to educate or push the boundaries, just to feed—and feed well.
“If we had a day off, what do we do? We cook and invite friends to come over to dinner,” he says. “On a nightly basis…we throw an Italian dinner party here at Vespaio.”
Samson, renewing his commitment after almost two decades says, “When you love what you do, and you can always get all the best ingredients and the best staff possible, then there’s really no reason you need to move on.”
Those high-quality, locally sourced ingredients shine in the traditional menu, from the manicotti Florentine with spinach, summery lemon zest and creamy ricotta that Samson wrings in a cheesecloth to eliminate extra moisture, resulting in a creamy, dense filling that holds its shape, to the duck confit, a lighter dish on the menu that is served on a salad with seasonal ingredients.
Large-scale catering might also be on the horizon, featuring bites like sandwiches, lasagna, baked ziti and caprese salads. The new owners are also thinking about smaller wine parties for groups of about a dozen.
With the mission and menu staying the same, the new focus will be on small renovations and a marketing plan. They’re planning a new mural on the Enoteca patio, along with sun shades and fans. Brooks says he already loves the atmosphere, “especially at night when the wood pizza oven is burning. It’s just very cozy.”
In 2005, he would have described the restaurant’s clientele as older.
“And now they’re my age! … Now we play a little Tribe Called Quest, a little New Order because that is the generation, the demographics that we’re seeing,” he says.
Renovations will also include a new sound system.
Marketing is a change for Vespaio, which gained popularity through word-of-mouth alone. Using social media, the new owners hope to reach Austin residents amid the noise of new restaurants coming and going. Tourists will also have a greater chance of seeing the restaurant’s name without having to pass it in person on the far side of South Congress Avenue.
While Vespaio is well-suited for date night, as well as friends and family visiting town, Enoteca is perfect for a midday walk-by. Grab the ricotta and mascarpone cheesecake, both creamy and fluffy.
“When people say, ‘Man, this is…delicious!” that’s always, for me,” Brooks says, “the best compliment.”