A Life of Hospitality at Simonini Gourmet Restaurant and Deli in Granger

By+Kathy Jonas

Not many are able to claim that pasta has been a big part of their lives, but Joe Vasta says it with pride. 


“I’ve always had a passion for food,” says the owner of Simonini Gourmet, 226 W. Cleveland Road, Granger. He often tells the story of himself as a 10-year-old boy hovering in the kitchen with his mother rather than running around with the other kids. “Maybe I was hungry. I had five siblings,” he says with a laugh. 


His mother was northern Italian and his father Sicilian. Vasta said he was greatly influenced by both his grandmothers, too. “Every meal was a big deal as I was growing up,” he says. “My father is a retired University of Notre Dame professor and we were always entertaining. The spirit runs deep. I’ve lived a life of hospitality.”


Born in South Bend, Vasta was trained as a chef at Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts. He worked in food service at Memorial Hospital for 15 years and then for Sodexo Foods when everything just “came together” for the restaurant in Granger.


The former Victorian Pantry space opened up in Centennial Plaza and Vasta’s dream of an intimate, modern, local, Italian bistro became a reality in February of this year.


Enter the Ravioli

When considering a concept for the restaurant, Vasta and his wife Tami, decided that their signature dish — ravioli — would also influence the design of the restaurant.


The recipe is a family one that includes beef, pork, spinach, cheese and mushrooms. Every day is Christmas at Simonini’s, where the dish is a permanent part of the menu. They now use a pasta machine, where past generations made it by hand as a special treat just on Christmas day.


The round shape of their ravioli is mirrored in the design of the stained glass windows along with other subtle nods to the historical pasta recipe and its place in the family. 


Vasta worked with Cheryl and Ray Wasmer of Phisz Design, Inc., who designed the “front of house” space including the sophisticated cut out area between the entry/deli and the dining area, a chalkboard menu board, and the dining room chandelier in which lights hang from a 100-year-old door. The couple also designed the slider door in the dining area, the menus, the logo and most everything else that needed designing. 


“Tami had expressed wanting to create a modern looking venue—not the typical, old-world looking Italian restaurant,” Cheryl says. “Phisz opted to go with a mix—a juxtapose of old/new elements and textures.”


Chicago, Chicago...

Simonini’s, the name of the restaurant, is also a nod to Vasta’s heritage. Back at the turn of the century, Vasta’s great-grandfather, Joe Simonini, and his brother opened a restaurant/saloon at 2607 N. Halstead Street in Chicago. The only surviving photo of the shop and Vasta’s great-grandfather serves as a focal point of the space on the east wall of the restaurant. Vasta credits Cheryl for making it happen. He said she took the original photo, enhanced the resolution, and put it on the wall as a mural. 


That 1908 photo brings tears to his eyes. And the fact that the ravioli recipe has been passed down from one family member to the next adds to the sentimental value of the business venture. 


“It’s what we’re all about,” he says. 


His mother’s family also has strong ties to the Windy City. His mother’s father Salvatore Stocco, was a band leader in Chicago. “My mother grew up in a party environment,” he says. “The band members would get done at 3 a.m. and would come over to eat. My grandmother would feed them pasta.” He adds that her family was full of artists who brought the world of art, music, sculpture and painting into the home.


Modern but old world

Quite a lot of work and planning went into getting the former Victorian Pantry space remodeled for a small restaurant. Repurposed wood pallets are used on the wall closest to the area where deli meats, pastas, cheeses and sauces are sold. Concrete floors give the space a modern look. 


He describes the food as similar to the décor: mixing old and new with classical preparation. Aside from the ravioli, he says their pizzas have been popular. Made to order in a stone oven, some of the possible toppings are zucchini, grilled eggplant, pancetta, prosciutto and goat cheese. 


Jan Fye, a recent customer, says she had read some reviews of the pizza and decided they had to go in and try one. “The crust was excellent and the toppings were fresh and plentiful,” she says. “If we could have eaten more that night, we would have. Thank goodness we both took some home for a repeat performance the next night! Now that’s good pizza.”


Simonini’s serves Lavazza coffee, which Vasta says is the coffee of choice for 71 percent of Italians. 


The restaurant, which employs about 15 people, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hours are 10 to 8 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday and 10 to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. A new outdoor patio might extend the hours during the summer months.


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