Vito's was a beloved Seattle restaurant for more than four decades, from its opening in 1953 until owner Vito Santoro's declining health forced him to sell the business in 1994. Situated close to First Hill hospitals, low-income apartment houses, and Seattle University, and several blocks up Madison Street from City Hall, Vito's was a smoky, convivial clubhouse where politicians and lawyers rubbed elbows with cabbies, bookies, and priests, and where regulars hob-nobbed over platters of Italian food, jugs of wine, and stiff drinks. Former Washington Lt. Governor John Cherberg (1910-1992) once called Vito's "the nicest cheap place I know" ("Elastic Rules ..."), and U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989), another devotee, famously said he'd rather be drinking beer at Vito's than sipping sherry at the Rainier Club. Although Vito's went into steep decline after Santoro sold out, the restaurant was reborn in 2010 under new owners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott, who remodeled Vito's with a nod to its colorful past.
'Jellybeans' From Torrington
The story of Vito's began during the Great Depression with four friends coming of age in a Connecticut factory town. The Santoro brothers -- Jimmy (1919-1971) and Vito (1921-2000) -- and their pals Charlie Puzzo (1922-2015) and Johnny Grieco (1920-1989) were street-smart boys and fine athletes on the playfields of Torrington, 120 miles from New York City. "They were typical youngsters in a predominantly Italian community, tough kids who served as altar boys on Sunday, then shot craps after Mass in a nearby alley. Later, many of these same youngsters quit school to get a job in one of the big foundries or rolling mills of Torrington" ("Old Gang ..."). Snappy dressers in their teens, the young men called themselves "jellybeans" and tore it up on the dance floor -- Puzzo even won the state jitterbug championship one year.
The jellybeans scattered with the onset of World War II. Jimmy, Vito, and Johnny Grieco served in the Pacific theater and either passed through Seattle or were stationed nearby at various times during the war. "None of us had ever heard of Seattle," Jimmy recalled. "We decided we liked the place and might come back" ("Old Gang ..."). They came back in force. By 1947, Grieco and the Santoro brothers were living in Seattle and working as bartenders. Jimmy encouraged Puzzo to join them from Torrington a year later. In 1949, a younger Santoro sibling, 19-year-old Danny, came out to play football for the University of Washington.
Vito was penniless when he arrived by rail after the war: "I was on the train, and through Montana, Idaho and Washington, I didn't eat a thing. I landed at the King Street Station without a dime in my pocket" ("Vito's: An Institution ..."). Puzzo had $16 to his name, plus a yellow convertible that wasn't paid for. But Jimmy, the first to settle in Seattle, had landed a good job tending bar at the Rendezvous in the Denny Regrade. Vito soon found work, and when Puzzo arrived in 1948, Vito helped him get a job at Ernie Steele's on Broadway.
"We Opened on Nothing"
In 1949 Washington state legalized liquor by the drink, bringing cocktails into the mainstream and sparking a restaurant boom. The following year famed Seattle restaurateur Victor Rosellini opened his first place, Victor's 610, on Pine Street, and Peter Canlis launched his eponymous restaurant on Aurora Avenue. Jimmy Santoro left the Rendezvous to work at the 610, tending bar and learning the restaurant business from chef John Poggetti, as well as Rosellini, a classically trained maître 'd known for impeccable customer service.
Jimmy and Vito were both making great money -- Vito drove a Cadillac -- but starting their own restaurant would require some belt-tightening. Jimmy was hesitant when the idea was broached, so Vito forged ahead. His search for a site led him to a vacant spot at 823 Madison Street, a few steep blocks up First Hill from the center of town. Built in 1902 as the Assembly Apartments, the four-story building included a 5,580-square-foot restaurant space on the ground level. Vito secured a lease, worked out a parking deal with the nearby Nettleton Garage, and hocked his Cadillac for $2,500. While they readied the new space, Vito kept a bartending job at the Rendezvous and Jimmy continued to work at the 610. On Sundays the brothers would meet on Madison Street to build out the restaurant. Vito's opened for business on May 8, 1953. "We did everything with our own hands," Vito recalled. "We did the floors, the walls, the kitchen, the toilets -- all of it. We opened on nothing" ("Vito's: An Institution ..."). Jimmy remained at the 610 for about six more months before joining Vito as a fulltime partner. Or, as Vito recalled, "about the same time that I got my Cadillac out of hock" ("Vito and Jimmy ...").
The brothers had built a wide circle of friends and acquaintances by 1953, and business picked up quickly. Regulars from the 610 and the Rendezvous stopped by as a show of support and kept coming back. Everyone loved the bar at Vito's. The food? "Vito thought the cooking was good, but nobody else did," said popular journalist Ed Donohoe. "Everybody was pulling for him, though. He must have gone through a dozen cooks before he found cooking that the customers liked. Soon the sports crowd, especially the writers, made it a hangout. And it wasn't long before Vito's was a going concern" ("Vito and Jimmy ...").
Rosellini had taught the brothers well. Their restaurant was welcoming, dark, and dramatic, "a cozy cave quilted in red Naugahyde, mirrored tiles, and dark-stained balustrades" ("Vito's: An Italian Place ..."). The tables were clothed in white linen. The black-and-white-clad waitstaff, all women, were some of the best in town. Recalled longtime Seattle restaurateur Mick McHugh, "It was a warm, inviting, very Italian, very Seattle place -- a great joint" ("Survivors: Class That Lasts").
A Burgeoning Scene
From Vito's front door at the southwest corner of 9th and Madison, the Sorrento Hotel was a block away. Several hospitals were close by. Seattle University was an easy walk over the crown of First Hill, St. James Cathedral was a stone's throw from Vito's, and Yellow Cab dispatched taxis from right across the street. Soon Vito's became, according to Seattle Times columnist Ross Anderson, "a Seattle crossroads, a meeting place for politicians and judges, surgeons and Jesuit priests, senior citizens and Husky football fans ... The big round table in back was known as the family table. But 'family' eventually encompassed downtown lawyers, City Council members ... and aging pensioners lured by the spaghetti specials. Here deals were struck, city issues negotiated, bets placed and settled" ("Restaurateur Vito ...").
The family table was born because it pained Vito to see anyone dine alone. The neighborhood was full of seniors, many of them single and presumably lonely. "A lot of people from the Nettleton would come in and be sitting by themselves," recalled Vito's niece Angela Rinaldi. "There was a big black-and-white round table by the kitchen and my uncle would sit with his back to the kitchen wall so he could see the front door. So he started inviting people to eat with him. It became really popular, and pretty soon they started coming early just so they could sit at the family table" (Rinaldi interview).
The bar, the Vagabond Room, was another lively spot, with its jukebox and "some of the finest no-holds-barred sports talk and state-of-the-nation argument anywhere in town. Either Jimmy or Vito always is in the place, usually behind the bar. Customers appreciate this. They like to be greeted by someone they know" ("Vito And Jimmy ..."). Another familiar face met customers at the restaurant's front door, where Eleanor Santoro, Jimmy's wife, ran reservations with her best friend Virginia. "They were like the two old guys in The Muppets, up there in front smoking cigarettes and a little gossipy," recalled Angela Rinaldi (Rinaldi interview). The popular daytime bartender was Albert "Big Al" Rinaldi, who married the Santoros' sister Carmella in 1937 and moved his family from Torrington to Seattle in 1969.
A circa-1955 Vito's menu listed "Italian Specialties" such as Veal Scallopini with Mushrooms ($1.60), Chicken Cacciatore ($2), and Italian Spaghetti with Meatballs ($1.25). A less-ambitious diner could choose a Salami Sandwich (60 cents), or from the "Evening Suggestions" menu, Ham and Eggs ($1). The latter became a sore point when the brothers finally found a reliable chef -- Guido Buchignani, an Italian who spoke no English and disdained cooking breakfast at 9 p.m. "A waitress would come into the kitchen and ask for ham and eggs and Guido would throw a pan at her," Vito told John Hinterberger of The Seattle Times. "Ah, but he was a wonderful cook, a genius. Rosellini originally brought him up here from San Francisco ... You can't believe how good, and unusual, Guido was. He couldn't read or write. After work he would sit there eating sardine sandwiches and drinking his brandy. The greatest thing that ever happened to us" ("The Inside Track ...").
Cannelloni became Vito's most popular dish -- though it was never on the menu. Instead, the waitstaff offered it as a daily special and talked it up. "It was intentional," Vito said. "We wanted the waitresses to be able to offer a special to our customers, something that was really nice" ("The Inside Track ..."). Sure enough, when a Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic visited Vito's in 1982, the waitress talked her out of ordering veal piccata and into the cannelloni, which required a 20-minute wait time. "And it's well worth it," the critic wrote. "The wide, tube-like noodles are stuffed with cheese, meat and greens, smothered in a superb tomato sauce and mixture of cheese and herbs" (Vito's: An Italian Place ..."). A few years after Buchignani retired in the mid-1960s, Joe Pine became head chef and stayed for 22 years. Other longtime kitchen hands included a broiler chef known only as "Red," a Mrs. Napoli who made the pizza, and a married couple, Margaret and Rome Vernaroni. It was Margaret who brought the cannelloni recipe to Vito's. For many years, preparing cannelloni for the oven was her only chore.
Meanwhile, Vito's all-female waitstaff commanded the busy dining room. "They didn't take guff from anybody," recalled Johnny O'Brien, a Vito's habitue and former All American basketball player at Seattle University. According to O'Brien, Vito liked to joke that the restaurant was successful for three reasons -- no view, no parking, and no waitresses under 50 years old. Vito's was a union house, and many of the waitresses were indeed old pros. Ardra Baker waited tables at Vito's for 24 years, Donna Wortman toiled there for 26 years, and Kay Baumgartner for 27. After her visit to Vito's in 1982, the Post-Intelligencer critic wrote, "the waitresses, affable and sturdy, probably would rather choke than have to prattle, 'My name is Denise and I am your waitperson'" ("Vito's: An Italian Place ...").
The Sporting Crowd
Vito's was a sports hangout from the start. Boxer Vinnie DeCarlo and newspaperman Emmett Watson, a former Seattle Rainiers catcher, were early devotees. When Watson needed a scoop before DeCarlo's 1954 bout with "Tiger" Al Williams, he dialed the Vagabond Room and got DeCarlo on the telephone. After the fight, a devastating defeat for DeCarlo, Watson wrote: "Your agent gave a wide berth to Vito Santoro's place Tuesday night, since I cannot stand to see strong men cry. This particular Black Tuesday was the night Vinnie DeCarlo, the Vagabond King, ran into a flock of right hands thrown by Tiger Al Williams. Such grief was never known at Vito's. 'Too much Williams, eh?' I asked a DeCarlo handler. 'No,' he said sadly, 'too much pizza. Vito serves it on Tuesdays and Vinnie can't let it alone. (He) went into the ring full of too much pizza and confidence" ("The Real Explanation").
Even before Danny Santoro joined the UW football team in 1949, Vito had adopted the Huskies as his favorite team. He attended every home game for 32 years, his streak snapped when he was hospitalized in 1979. The restaurant bought blocks of season tickets and ran charter buses to Husky Stadium. "Jimmy and Vito Santoro ... and Victor Rosellini with his '610' and 'Four-10' restaurants, were among the first to charter buses to take customers to ball games," wrote the Times in 1960. "Rosellini sometimes dons an old-fashioned racoon coat and Washington rooter cap to lend atmosphere to the occasion. He also passes out chrysanthemums to women guests as they board the bus, not to mention box lunches and wrapped sandwiches for late arrivals. Not to be outdone, the Santoros provide musical entertainment such as Frank Sugia and his accordion for the bus ride to the stadium" ("Restaurateur of Today ...").
Baseball? Jimmy and Vito loved that too. When a citizens group started a drive in 1964 to lure the Cleveland Indians to Seattle, the brothers bought 1,100 tickets. In 1968, when the restaurant hosted a $50-a-head banquet for Seattle-born star Ron Santo, "chef Guido Buchignani, semi-retired but still famed for his Tuscany Italian cookery, agreed to unretire long enough to cook the Sunday gourmet dinner" ("Slight Wrong To Be Righted"). Vito's sports loyalties also extended to nearby Seattle University, where Eddie O'Brien -- twin brother of Johnny O'Brien -- was director of athletics. Vito's sponsored radio broadcasts of SU basketball games and hosted the basketball team's annual awards banquet. "Eddie O'Brien took the new Seattle University basketball coach, Jack Schalow, to dinner the other night as part of his indoctrination tour," Walt Evans wrote in the Times in 1978. "A Chieftain coach must know the recruiting area, the basics of the four-corner offense, and what to order at Vito's" ("Spring Concert Coup ...").
The Soaring Sixties
Vito's swaggered into the 1960s at the top of its game. Business boomed, its football charters were a hit, and the restaurant was buying and selling more sports tickets than any other place in town. In 1962 Vito spoke out against price-gouging during the World's Fair: "I know that when the fair is gone my customers will still be here. Personally, I'm going to take care of the Seattle people, the old customers who made this place possible -- and incidentally, we do a capacity business, so I don't have to worry about pleasing anybody or chasing new business" ("Seattle's Best Asset ..."). That same year, Jimmy paid $9,100 for a new Cadillac, one of only five like it in the U.S. A year later, the brothers bought Green's Cigar Store, a cardroom in downtown Seattle.
Johnny Grieco and Charlie Puzzo also were finding success in the restaurant business. Grieco was elected president of the Bartenders Union, Local 487, in 1958 and reelected several times thereafter. He worked at the Rendezvous, the Westerner, the Hyatt House, and other boozy hotspots and was, according to Emmett Watson, "one of the city's most popular bartenders" ("This Our City"). Puzzo bought the Playboy Tavern on Pine Street, turned it into a profitable enterprise, and in 1961 opened the Penthouse, a renowned jazz nightclub in Pioneer Square.
In 1966 John Reddin of the Times rounded up Puzzo, Grieco, Vito, Jimmy, and younger brother Danny Santoro for a photo shoot. The Italian boys from Torrington had done quite well for themselves; the story noted that all five had married Swedes from Seattle (not true; Vito's wife Mollie was Norwegian), and that Danny was now an optometrist in Edmonds. Much respect was bestowed upon Vito, an ex-Marine with a Purple Heart who scraped together the money to open Vito's, gave generously to charities, and treated his customers like family. On many days, Vito would work the lunch hour, go home for an afternoon nap, and then return for the evening service. "He was always with his customers," Johnny O'Brien recalled (O'Brien interview).
Jimmy Santoro, a man with prodigious appetites, was somewhat less reliable. "Jimmy was a heavy drinker and Vito was always trying to get him to stop," O'Brien recalled. "Finally, Vito offered him $20,000 to quit. Jimmy agreed, but two months later Vito comes in and Jimmy is stiff as a board. Vito says, 'What happened?' and Jimmy says, 'Did you really expect me to quit for a lousy twenty grand?'" (O'Brien interview). After Jimmy's health deteriorated, his wife Eleanor and his doctor convinced him to lose weight. In the summer of 1970, he spent three weeks at the La Costa Health Spa in Southern California, where, the Times noted, one of his fellow residents was Ed McMahon, television sidekick to Johnny Carson. Jimmy lost 37 pounds. To celebrate, he invited John Reddin up to the restaurant for lunch. Jimmy tucked a napkin into his collar and dined on veal parmigiana and mostaccioli. He died 13 months later at age 52. His passing was noted in the P-I: "The city lost one of its nice guys with the death of Jimmy Santoro," Emmett Watson wrote. "Along with his brother, Vito, Jimmy added much to the warmth of Seattle life -- the restaurant Vito's being a virtual headquarters for many of the town's notables" ("This Our City").
Whispers in the Dark
Rumors abound of hanky-panky in the dark recesses of Vito's. Reputed gangsters and other unsavories frequented the place, as did bookies and gamblers. It was easy to make a wager if one were so inclined, that much is known. When high-stakes Liar's Poker became popular, small fortunes were won and lost in the Vagabond Room. When The Untouchables became a television hit in 1960, the restaurant ran a pool each week on how many people would be killed in each episode. The bettor with the right number of corpses got the money.
Far more sinister were whispers that Vito's was a clubhouse for crooked cops and politicians who, according to a 1968 criminal indictment, accepted payoffs to facilitate, "... among other things, gambling, lotteries, prostitution, bribery, extortion, blackmail, and liquor-law violations" (Chambliss, 241). When he went to investigate Seattle's tolerance policy in the 1960s, author William J. Chambliss followed a trail to Vito's, where a group of men met every other Thursday for lunch in a back alcove. "For six months I went to the café as advised," Chambliss wrote. "It was indeed interesting to see, week after week, gathered at one table and talking low enough not to be heard by anyone else: the assistant chief of police, an assistant prosecuting attorney, an undersheriff, and an attorney from a firm of lawyers that specialized in criminal law. Those four people met regularly every other Thursday. Rarely, however, was the luncheon limited to just four" (Chambliss, 69).
The assistant chief of police was Milford E. "Buzz" Cook (1914-2007). In subsequent court proceedings Cook denied under oath any knowledge of the payoff system, a blatant lie. He was convicted of perjury in 1970 and sentenced to prison. In his trial testimony, Cook spoke of the Thursday lunch meetings at Vito's with a group that called itself the Pitty Pat Club. One of the members was police captain Lyle LaPointe. He too went to prison for his role in the payoffs.
After the payoff system ended, criminal charges were dropped against most of the participants, and the Pitty Pat Club became a celebrated part of Vito's lore. The attorney in the lunch meetings was Tom Keefe Sr., who later represented Cook in his perjury trial. "My dad, Tom Keefe, Sr., was a criminal defense lawyer and a founding member of what he referred to as the "Piti-pat Club," Tom Keefe Jr. wrote years later. "They met, as I recall, every Thursday in the back room. Top cops, lawyers, and the occasional guest. I recall they had their own liquor cabinet, mysteriously stocked with unlabeled bottles of top-shelf stuff. During the famous police payoff scandal, the feds were so interested in the goings-on during that lunch that they put a bug in the room. Their tapes caught a bunch of guys whining about their wives' shopping habits and lying about their golf scores" ("Vito's History").
Grazie, and Goodnight
Despite a tepid 1976 Times review by John Hinterberger that was critical of the cannelloni -- "filled with an excellent ground-meat stuffing but topped with a bland, uninspiring pink sauce that reminded one of the universal neutrality of canned soups" ("Restaurant Review") -- Vito's sailed through the 1970s, and when Hinterberger returned to the restaurant in 1988, he was pleased to see that little had changed: "Going back to Vito's after an absence of 12 years is like stepping back into the past and finding, almost with a shock, that it has not changed at all. The clientele, the waitresses, the menu, the fixtures, lighting, atmosphere, mood -- all appear fixed and immutable ... Vito Santoro opened his place 35 years ago Sunday. It has been a thriving business for him and a second home for thousands. In a transitory world that is not an inconsiderable achievement" ("Never-Changing Vito's ...").
While little had changed inside Vito's, Seattle's restaurant scene was evolving. Authentic regional Italian cuisine arrived in the city in the early 1980s, and by the end of the decade restaurants such as Saleh al Lago, La Buca, Settebello, Al Boccalino, and Il Terrazo Carmine were siphoning business from Vito's. Carousing in the Vito's bar became less appealing when the state stiffened drunk-driving laws. Inevitably, some of Vito's bon vivants began dying off. Finally, Vito himself began to falter. He spent time in the hospital in 1979 because of phlebitis; suffered greatly from diabetes, eventually losing his feet to amputation; and was treated for prostate cancer. Declining health forced him to sell the restaurant in 1994, though he continued to visit almost daily, holding court at the family table, where "he dispensed roughly equal portions of cannelloni and goodwill to anybody who passed through the doors" ("Restaurateur Vito ...").
Vito died on April 9, 2000. An overflow crowd flocked to his funeral at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church, where the restaurant had hosted an annual Columbus Day banquet to fund high-school scholarships. The Times sent columnist Jean Godden, who wrote: "The mourners, like Vito's customers, are a cross section of old-time Seattle: attorneys and bartenders, sports stars and businessmen, politicians and waiters. Sports publicist Bill Sears reels off names as they enter: Johnny O'Brien, Jack Dierdorff, Mick McHugh, Victor Rosellini, Dick Francisco, Edo Vanni. The DiJulios are here in force, and the Rinaldis and the Santoros. Mollie and Vito didn't have children, but they had a large extended family. Father Philip Lucid enters a side door carrying his vestments, reappearing soon afterward to conduct the service. He says he's grateful, though not surprised, by the packed church. He speaks lovingly of Vito's kindnesses, the fundraisers and scholarships. He concludes saying, 'He served not customers but friends'" ("'Family' Says Goodbye ...").
Death and Rebirth at 9th and Madison
Vito's lived on for another nine years, changing hands three more times after Vito died. When Times restaurant critic Providence Cicero visited in 2003, she noted a renovation that had removed the wall between the dining room and lounge while adding a double-sided bar, a DJ booth, and a glittering disco ball above a dance floor. She noted, too, that a portrait of Vito "still hangs above the big round table by the kitchen door where he liked to sit -- as a shrine of sorts" ("Vito's Recalls ..."). But Cicero's review was damning: "At 50, Vito's has evolved into a gathering place for a new generation of martini-swilling hipsters, but as a restaurant, it's beyond the September of its years, its customers dwindling to a precious few ... the pastor of a nearby church, a couple on a quick break from a hospital vigil, and a restaurant critic, sad to have missed the heyday of a legendary institution but happy to have tasted its memory" ("Vito's Recalls ...").
Each subsequent owner ran Vito's farther into the ground. By 2008, the old hideout for reputed gangsters had become a den for real violence, both outside and inside the restaurant. A drive-by shooting in June 2008 was followed by the events on November 23, 2008, when Nathaniel Lee Thomas was shot to death on the Vito's dance floor, the assailant firing one bullet into Thomas' head before fleeing. Seattle police said the shooting was part of escalating violence between gangs in the Central Area and South End. Not long after, Vito's was padlocked and its owners evicted.
The restaurant stood quiet for nearly two years, until September 18, 2010, when business partners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott opened a new-and-improved Vito's to favorable reviews. Business picked up, and by 2013 -- 60 years after Jimmy and Vito Santoro first opened the doors -- Vito's again was a First Hill favorite with broad appeal. "We love how diverse our patrons are," Lundgren said. "Our bar has 22-year-olds and 90-year-olds sitting shoulder to shoulder and it isn't weird at all. And everyone has a story about Vito's. It is sex and drugs and priests and politicians and criminals and card games and murder and family and really good cannelloni and ghosts. It has a history that very few businesses in Seattle can rival" ("Greg Lundgren And The Art ...").