January brought news about a bunch of Seattle restaurant closures. But none of the now shuttered eateries evoked more memories than the final demise of Vito’s, the First Hill restaurant ravaged by two disastrous fires.
The iconic hangout on Madison had a long and colorful history. It was the well-loved stomping ground of attorneys, judges, politicians, labor leaders, sport stars, and priests. The restaurant housed ghosts from long-ago Seattle. Regulars could recall jazz legends like Ruby Bishop playing the grand piano and the taxidermied cougar that presided over the bar. They could reminisce over Vito’s cocktail culture and its hearty East Coast Italian meals.
It was back in the 1980s when I was first introduced to Vito’s by Ed Donohoe, editor of the Washington Teamster. Donohoe couldn’t believe that I, then a city columnist, had never been to Vito’s. He took pity, inviting me to break bread with him there. A lovable curmudgeon, Donohoe was notorious for regularly skewering politicians in his Teamster column, “Tilting the Windmill.” It was Donohoe who named former Governor Dan Evans, a one-time Eagle Scout, “Straight Arrow,” who derisively dubbed Senator Slade Gorton “Slippery Slade,” and who dismissed Fire Chief Gordon Vickery as “Smokey the Bore.”
For my introduction to Vito’s, Donohoe arranged to pick me up at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offices in his well-kept older car, one of those tall-finned showboats. He squired me to a table in the front of the dining room and, when the waitress arrived, insisted on ordering the cannelloni. The popular entree was never on the menu but always described by waitstaff as “the special.” When it arrived, the dish was as expected: thin tube-shaped noodles filled with cheese, meat and herbs and slathered with a savory tomato sauce.
Owner “Uncle Vito” Santoro presided daily at a round “family table” back near the kitchen. Vito delighted in the food, but not everyone agreed. Turns out the restaurant was never about the food (chicken cacciatore, veal scallopine, spaghetti and meatballs) but was valued for quirky Seattle ambiance. Critics described the establishment as having “no view, no parking, and no waitress under 50.” No matter: the hangout was prized as a union shop. Vito’s kitchen was the province of Guido Buchignami, a chef whom Seattle restaurateur Victor Rosellini first imported from San Francisco. Guido spoke no English and allegedly was unable to read or write.
Vito and his younger brother Jimmy Santoro opened the restaurant in 1953. Vito had passed through Seattle during his World War II service and decided to return. The brothers bartended during their first years here (the Rendezvous, Rosellini’s Four-10 etc.), saving enough to buy the site at Ninth and Madison. They outfitted it with their bare hands – toilets and all. Although Jimmy died young at 52, Vito ran the restaurant for 40 years, lasting until ill health forced him to sell in 1994.
In succeeding years, the establishment survived a series of owners, none as memorable as its generous-to-a-fault namesake. Vito Santoro became a legend in his time. Stories are still circulating about tales of backroom card games, rumors of shady cops with gangster connections, even a couple of shootings. One friend recalled how a young lawyer intent on meeting movers took his wife to dinner there. Asked by a co-worker “Who was that woman I saw you with last night?” Told it was the lawyer’s wife, the colleague said, “You never take your wife to Vito’s.”
Such was Vito’s fame that I was persuaded by my friend Seattle Times’ editor Terry Tazioli to attend and cover Vito’s funeral when he died April 9, 2000. The service was held at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church (since closed by the Catholic archdiocese). The church, built in the 1890s, clung to a hillside overlooking Rainier Valley and the ethnic neighborhood once known as “Garlic Gulch.” The church’s exterior by then displayed cracked walls and creeping mold, but the sanctuary was still spotless and serene — ivory walls framing stained-glass windows with dates from the early 1900s.
On the day of the funeral, the worn rosewood pews were filled with mourners, more than 300 with 50 more standing in the back. Mourners included prominent members of the Italian community (Rinaldis, Santoros, and diJulios) as well as a cross-section of old-time Seattle. I sat close enough to hear sports publicist Bill Sears reel off names as they entered: Seattle University sports star Johnny O’Brien, Seattle Rainier firebrand Edo Vanni, commercial realtor Jack Dierdorff, and restaurateurs Mick McHugh, Victor Rosellini, and Dick Francisco. Vito and his wife Mollie didn’t have children but they had a large extended family.
The service was conducted by Father Philip Lucid who said he was not surprised at the packed church. He spoke lovingly of Vito’s kindnesses, the fund-raisers and scholarships. He concluded saying, “Vito served not customers but friends.”
Family members too spoke, recalled how their Uncle Vito – even nonrelatives called him that – took them fishing, first stocking up on snacks at a corner store in Ballard. One relative said, “Santoros haven’t missed many meals.” Mourners told how Vito’s blue eyes lighted up whenever he caught sight of his wife Mollie, the love of his life. It was Mollie and her friend Virginia who dealt with restaurant reservations, standing together smoking and gossiping by the front desk.
Finally the Marine color guard saluted Vito, a former Marine wounded during his war years. They opened an outside door for a three-gun salute. A bugler pierced hearts playing taps.
It was only later in the church social hall that the bulk of the mourners, stoked with towering plates of Italian food prepared under Rosellini’s expert direction, retold favorite stories. Aggie O’Reilly Graves, a regular who lived in the neighborhood, said she’d once suggested to Vito he serve fresh vegetables instead of canned corn and green beans. She recalled him protesting, “What’s wrong with what I serve? It’s the best S & W.” Former bartender Leo Costello remembered the rivalry between Vito and his brother-partner Jimmy. They’d fight over who had the most customers, their shouting matches conducted in Italian.
“Everyone came together at Vito’s,” said publicist Bill Sears “They’d go to the bar and find someone they knew. Or sit at the round table (everyone counted there as family) and order the cannelloni that never was on the menu.” That day the tale tellers kept the conversation pot boiling, each seeing Vito a little differently. But no one disagreed with attorney Al Bianchi when he said, “Vito was the kindest man I ever met.”