When new owners take over a restaurant, they generally close it for at least a few weeks before reopening with a new look, menu and staff. But when father-son duo Steve and Jake Vespa purchased Dino's Pizza last summer, they chose to keep the doors open. "We bought it on a Tuesday," says Steve, "and an hour later we were serving lunch."
While changes at the Essex Junction pizzeria have been under way since July, when Yellow Sign Commercial president Peter Yee brokered the deal, it wasn't until Monday, October 19, that the Vespas installed new signage formally broadcasting the switch from Dino's to Vespa's Pizza.
Rather than jump in with a new bill of fare, the Vespas reformulated the menu a few dishes at a time. The shop still offers the expected pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, salads and apps, but the new owners have streamlined the menu, updated recipes for sauces and cheese blends, and begun making many pizza toppings in-house.
Pizzas range from basic cheese with standard fixings to new classics such as Hawaiian or Buffalo chicken. The Vespas have also introduced a handful of house creations: One pizza is topped with sherried mushrooms, housemade pancetta and Brie, another with prosciutto, grilled asparagus and buffalo mozzarella.
The pair has swapped Dino's long lists of subs, burgers and open-faced sandwiches for a handful of panini layered into grilled housemade focaccia, such as a classic Caprese with prosciutto, or roasted turkey with sun-dried tomato tapenade. And the menu offers just a few straightforward burgers, Parmesan subs, cheesesteaks and buttermilk fried chicken.
Diners may notice higher-quality ingredients — meatballs for the subs, for instance, now come from house-ground beef short rib and pork butt. Steve Vespa says they're still testing new items every week, describing the menu as a collaboration that melds his experience and his son's. Nineteen-year-old Jake received his culinary training at the Center for Technology, Essex, and got subsequent cooking experience at Jericho Café & Tavern. The elder Vespa spent 15 years in front-of-house management at New England Culinary Institute restaurants, then took a gig distributing wine for Calmont Beverage.
Now, while Jake runs the kitchen, overseeing prep and ordering, his father can focus on bringing creativity to the menu. With a newly minted liquor license in hand, Steve will put his wine noggin to work, selecting a handful of wines by the glass and draft beers for in-house diners.
Though Steve acknowledges that pizza and pasta are both open to creative interpretation, he says the push right now is toward quality: "Our main focus is getting our menu tightened up so we're happy with everything that's going out. We're kind of walking a fine line where where we want to be is not necessarily where we are right now. It's going to be a process."
Vespa's is currently open Tuesday through Sunday, and the owners hope to start serving daily lunch and dinner by month's end.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Shiny New Vespa"
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