Decades before Tujunga Village became one of the Valley's trendiest retail stretches, the Restaurant That Would Be Vitello's took shape in Studio City a few doors north of Woodbridge Street.
There, during the '60s, a baker from New York named Sal Vitello opened the doors of a modest subway sandwich shop. As North Hollywood resident Norton Flynn remembers it, "Sal looked and acted like Carmine, the guy from Laverne and Shirley."
Flynn's father, Harry, noted, "Sal baked the best bread. I know the neighborhood is very chic now, but back then it wasn't chic at all."
Vitello later moved his operation across the street, and in 1977 he sold his restaurant to the Sicilian-born Restivo brothers. Joe Restivo, a part-time stand-up comedian, and his brother Steve previously ran an Italian eatery in Chicago before moving west to set up shop in the San Fernando Valley.
The brothers practiced a rough-hewn management style, according to current 's owner Matt Epstein. "I remember one summer afternoon about 25 years ago, I went to Vitello's with my sister-in-law," said Epstein, who grew up in Sherman Oaks.
"I'm 6-foot-3, I got long legs, so as I'm sitting there I put my leg across the booth, relaxing," Epstein recalled. "Steve came over to the table, grabbed my foot, threw it to the ground, whipped me around, and barked, 'I wouldn't come into your house and put my feet on your couch!' They were old-school Italians, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way at all. You either loved those guys or you could get up and walk out. They didn't care. It was their joint."
The Restivos made it work. Vitello's became a hangout for the Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra's autographed 8x10 still occupies a place of honor on the restaurant's wall of fame—and attracted TV talent who'd drop by for a plate of pasta after taping shows at Studio City's Studios lot or on Universal City sound stages.
The foyer wall remains decorated with glossy photos of star Frankie Muniz, Jack Klugman, Michael Landon, Scott Baio and Melissa Joan Hart, who personalized her Sabrina the Teenage Witch publicity picture by writing "Your cannollini rocks!"
In 2001, the restaurant's celeb cachet became common knowledge on a national scale after actorin the couple's car following a dinner at Vitello's.
The Bonnie Bakley incident was not the only celebrity-related killing connected with a San Fernando Valley Italian restaurant.
"Ventura Boulevard was a hangout for the L.A. Mafia in the '50s and '60s," according to historian Kevin Roderick. As reported in his book The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb, Rondinelli's made headlines in 1959 when a gun that had belonged to Lana Turner's boyfriend Johnny Stompanato was found in a nearby dumpster after Jack "The Enforcer" Whalen inside the Sherman Oaks watering hole while sitting next to mobster Mickey Cohen.
After surviving years of tabloid scrutiny for the Blake connection, the brothers sold Vitello's in 2005 for $3.1 million to Epstein. The Sherman Oaks homeboy made his play partly motivated by affection for the restaurant he'd grown up with.
"I knew a couple of developers were looking at Vitello's and the parking lot next door as a potential development site to tear down," Epstein said. "I made an offer on the property and bought the real estate to really protect this place and make sure the restaurant continues on for generations to come."
A month of Vitello's . . .
Next Week: Vitello's, the music
Week 4: Vitello's future.