It's taken a few years to regain its footing as Tujunga Village's most mellow night spot, but one decade after became an unwilling co-star in the saga of the murder of Robert Blake's wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, the Italian restaurant has gotten back to basics.
No longer a tourist attraction for buses full of true-crime gawkers, Vitello's is now all about meatballs and music.
Ten years ago tonight, actor and Studio City resident Robert Blake took his wife, Bonny Lee (whose legal name was Leebonny), to Vitello's for dinner. Blake, famous for playing a TV cop in Baretta, frequented Vitello's so often that the owners named a spinach and pasta dish in his honor. But on May 4, 2001, the Blakes' low-key evening took a twisted turn around the corner from Vitello's on Woodbridge Street, where Bakley was murdered while sitting in the couple's car.
The details, as replayed hundreds of times by the media during the early 2000s: Blake claimed he'd left a gun inside the restaurant during dinner, and was retrieving the firearm when his wife was killed. Charged with murder, Blake was tried and acquitted in 2005, but soon thereafter lost a wrongful death civil suit. The actor filed for bankruptcy in 2006. Since then, he's maintained a low profile.
By contrast, the restaurant has bounced back for reasons that have nothing to do with notoriety.
First of all, there's the food itself. Rigatoni, capellini, mostaccioli and other vowel-luptuous pasta dishes, steeped in red sauce and garlic, are prepared to order and served hot. It's not the kind of haute cuisine that makes critics swoon, but Vitello's old-fashioned fare, which also includes pizza, veal parmesan and chicken marsala, brings in a steady stream of customers.
Reinforcing the comfort food vibe is Vitello's cozy, celeb-accented décor. One side of the dimly lit foyer is racked with dozens of wine bottles waiting to be uncorked. The facing wall features nearly 150 autographed 8-by-10 glossies of the famous, semi-famous, and wish-they-had-been-famous. Peer upward from your seat on one of the dark-stained wood pews and you'll see a life-size statue of Marlon Brando as the Godfather.
The family-friendly dining room radiates semiformal Old World ambience with tablecloths, paintings and leatherette red menus as patrons file in at the dinner hour dressed in shorts and flip-flops.
Upstairs, music fans can check out live jazz and soft pop several times a week in a program introduced by Lisa Williams shortly after the restaurant was acquired by Sherman Oaks realtor Matt Epstein in 2005.
Impresario Michael Sterling, who produces Vitello's Sunday night cabaret series, says, "The Robert Blake incident will never go away, even though, in fact, nothing actually happened at the restaurant. It's still something that intrigues people who like to see the booth or talk about it." But the TV news trucks are long gone, replaced by an entirely new clientele that has only passing interest in Blake's dark legacy.
Now, Sterling says, patrons show up for "the total experience of having dinner and seeing a great show."
(A Month of Wednesdays at Vitello's: Journalist and Studio City resident will feature secrets and specials at each Wednesday in May, including the history, the music and the food. Keep checking back!)