Biz Beat

On Vito’s, downtown Modesto, Chicago and New Orleans

Vito's Ristorante in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.
Vito's Ristorante in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. aalfaro@modbee.com

In a twist on that old saying, “When one door closes, another opens,” the doors of one downtown Modesto restaurant have closed, but those same doors soon will open as another entity.

Vito’s, which has occupied a spot on 13th Street for the past seven years, closed at the beginning of the year. Owner Ray Ashak said he and his wife, May, have always planned to return to his hometown of Chicago and this seemed like a good time.

The Ashaks took over Vito’s from its original owners, who operate Vito’s in Turlock. Ray was the manager of the Modesto location at the time.

Now they are headed back to Chicago, where he will return to his previous line of work, purchasing. “I may do some catering,” he said. But before the Ashaks leave, they wanted to make sure I included their thanks to their customers, employees and to Lazar and Francia Piro, owner of the original Vito’s in Turlock “for giving us our start.”

Prior to becoming Vito’s, the site housed Oceana restaurant. More on that in a moment.

As for what’s happening at the restaurant, it won’t be vacant long. Attorney Mark Nelson has taken over and plans a quick turnaround.

Nelson said he will open Bayou Bar and Grill in the next few weeks.

I asked Nelson, a 30-year attorney, why he decided to get into the restaurant business. “I don’t know if I’m tired of practicing law or I’m out of my mind,” he said, laughing. He said he hopes to provide his son, also Mark Nelson and a bartender, an opportunity to manage and eventually take over the restaurant.

Nelson is familiar with Vito’s, having been a regular customer over the years. In fact, originally he planned to keep the name and the menu – he is keeping some of the staff.

“But the more I thought about it, I realized we have a lot of Italian restaurants, we have a lot of Mexican restaurants,” he said. “We don’t have a Cajun restaurant.”

Nelson has frequented New Orleans over the years, and has become a fan of the art and music, and, of course, the food.

He plans traditional fare like jambalaya and gumbo. “But we’ll also have burgers, pizza, pasta and oysters,” he said.

I am particularly looking forward to the “Blue Bayou,” a burger with blue cheese. There also will be a full bar. And – good news for fans like me – holdovers from Vito’s that include the Waldorf salad.

And speaking of holdovers and history, fans of Oceana will be happy to learn that chef Chris Bonora is returning to take the reins in the kitchen. “He’s one of the top chefs in the area,” Nelson said.

All in all, Nelson envisions a lively but elegant restaurant. “It’ll be a fun, lit-up, energetic environment, I think,” he said.

Remodeling work on the site has begun and is moving along at a fast clip. Nelson said he would love to be open by Valentine’s Day. “My contractor says that’s impossible, but we’ll see,” he said. “I think it’s possible.”

In the meantime, the Bayou is hiring. Anyone interested in applying can contact Diane Marcuerquiaga at 209-606-0011.

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