La Vecchia — the longtime Italian restaurant that debuted in downtown Reno, later moving to one of the busiest corners in town and finally to a hill above the city — has closed after 31 years.
In an exclusive interview with Reno News & Review, Chef Alberto Gazzola, the founder-owner of La Vecchia, discussed the closing that occurred in early June.
The reason was not financial, he said, but rather several factors coming together: difficulty finding staff, his decision to step back from cooking in the last five years, other business projects and interests, and a fortuitous opportunity to sell the business.
Sushimi’s, a sushi spot a few doors down from La Vecchia in its Skyline Drive center, “was looking around to expand,” Gazzola said. “I said, ‘Maybe you can take this over?’ We started talking seriously in March. It was the right situation at the right time.”
Edgar Hernandez, an owner of Sushimi’s, said the purchase of La Vecchia by him and his business partners would close soon, with Sushimi’s going into the old La Vecchia (after a design remodel) and Skyline Café, a breakfast and lunch place, opening in the former sushi restaurant.
“It’s a plan we’ve had for a long time,” Hernandez said of Skyline Café. “It’s a good name everybody in the neighborhood knows about from back in the day,” he added, referring to a restaurant by that name that once operated in the center before La Vecchia moved in.
Gazzola said in recent years, he wasn’t “as attached as I used to be to La Vecchia.” At the same time, the closing came with nostalgia, he acknowledged.
“I do have the feeling in the back of my head that I’m losing something. I have a huge amount of wonderful customers. I’ve been defined by this restaurant in this town. Who is Alberto Gazzola? He owns La Vecchia.”
Flourishing across the city
La Vecchia opened as La Vecchia Varese on West Street in May 1990, where Crafted Palette operates now.
West Street in 1990 was more raffish than it is today (though it still has its moments). X.O. shrimp from Kwok’s and Basque rosé from Archive wine bar, wood-fire pies from the Pizza Collective and, at Crafted Palette, paintbrushes paired with chardonnay — all these current attractions were years in the future on West Street.
Gazzola was just 26 when he opened La Vecchia Varese, named after his native Varese, a town near the border with Switzerland in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy.
In 1999, La Vecchia Varese moved to roomier digs on West Moana Lane at South Virginia Street, becoming just La Vecchia, which is what folks had always called it anyway.
Gazzola took on two business partners. One, Ivano Centemeri, is now executive chef of Caesars Entertainment Inc. in Reno. The other, Patricia Zanchetta, who no longer lives here, was known for her superlative style, working the room for hours in Cavalli and skyscraping stilettos. (Neither is still a partner.)
When the city needed the Moana Lane site for road improvements in 2012, La Vecchia made its last move, to Skyline Drive, reopening in early 2013.
Working on Centro South
From the beginning, La Vecchia was distinguished by its authenticity (in the truest and best sense of this overused term in food and drink). As Gazzola told the Reno News & Review in 2014, “intimate knowledge about all that is Italian makes us stand out when it comes to Italian food.”
Although the menu changed over the years, embracing food world developments and influences beyond Italian cooking, an essential Italianness remained. As I’m reminded when I think of the Calabrian salame pie and the rigatoni (variously dressed), some of the finest pizza and pasta I’ve ever eaten.
Gazzola said closing La Vecchia has been made easier because he’ll soon begin work on Centro South in the Village at Ranchharrah, a sister restaurant to his popular Centro on California Avenue.
“It’s the winding down of one thing, the winding up of another. The new place, I’m very excited about the design. I didn’t want to be out of the food business. I still wanted to be close to it.”
In a sense, he’ll also still be close to the old La Vecchia. Through a limited liability company, he and his wife own the center. So he’ll have a new role at the new restaurant: landlord.
Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink writer for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or, for Reno News & Review food and drink content, at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter.