Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (2024)

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For the past six months, Vita on 261 S 17th Street has been serving house-made gelatos in a cozy 375-sq-ft spot with an eye-catching Ferrari red fridge in its rear corner.

Now, patrons can access the fridge for what it is — a ‘secret’ entry into the city’s newest Italian restaurant, with 125 seats split across a main and private dining area, bar, and outdoor patio.

It’s the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Massimo and Ana Boni, both 30. Their goal, Massimo explained, had always been an Italian restaurant; the bisected space allowed an early launch for the gelateria to help fund the rest of the build.

Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (2)

While the pasta-heavy menu is a nod to Italian-born Boni’s Neapolitan upbringing — “I would have pasta every single night for dinner,” he told Billy Penn — the lineup isn’t region specific; instead built on “dishes that are very classical, but with some flair,” Boni said, plus “some whimsical interpretations.”

For the former: carbonara, cacio e pepe, Bolognese, and an Amatriciana with guanciale pork jowl. Stuffed options include bottoni, and a ricotta-filled parsley-dough balanzoni in a cream sage and nutmeg sauce with minced Italian sausage. All pastas are house-made and range from $21-$26.

Among the eight starters ($8-$18) are a spicy Caesar salad with chrysanthemum greens, Nonna’s meatballs with pine nuts and raisins, and arancini made with a red wine risotto instead of the usual white. Entrees ($32-$42) consist of sea bass puttanesca, chicken al Mattone, and bistecca alla Fiorentina. For libations, a robust roster of Italian wines, co*cktails, and mocktails, with spiked sorbetto and gelato concoctions also available.

  • Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (3)
  • Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (4)
  • Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (5)
  • Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (6)

With its expansion, Vita represents Boni’s first foray into the restaurant industry after a previous career as a New York-based construction manager. That experience provided a perspective on “what it takes to develop an understanding of the roles and responsibilities that go into [a restaurant],” he said, “from the owner standpoint, architect standpoint, and construction management.”

For the restaurant design, the couple have gone with warm wood and tile work and a focus on “contemporary, fun colors.” An additional sense of playfulness is brought out by the cherub theme running throughout the space. “They’re always mischievous, always up to something,” Boni said of the angels depicted in hanging figurines or as illustrations clutching either co*cktail glasses or a variety of spoons — “a gelato spoon, a wooden spoon, the spoon I got disciplined with as a child.”

Personal touches extend throughout, from Boni’s handwritten logo and menu headers, to a wall of mounted golden trays sourced from his mother’s King of Prussia store after her passing; a loss he said brought him closer to his sister Vittoria, or Vita per her childhood nickname, after the two had drifted apart.

“It put things into perspective for me, like what is important in life? What is gratification, what is fulfillment?” he recalled. “What is happiness, and what do I want to spend my time doing?”

Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (7)

Those same concerns and thoughtfulness form the backbone of Vita, with Boni stressing it took a fully committed team to bring the project to life. Despite having a separate full-time job, Ana acts as Vita’s events manager, further assisting on weekends.

Besides the couple, Vita’s fifteen-person staff revolves around Venezuelan executive chef Juan Luis Urdaneta, who had previously opened Flora, an Italian restaurant in Bogota, and gelato master Matthew Cocco, whose creations will gradually be integrated into the restaurant’s menu — and whose wife manages Vita’s social media.

“Who you go to work with every single day is important,” Boni said, pointing out the eight-hour shifts ultimately add up to “a third of your life, and I can’t have that be in a place that isn’t a positive experience or work environment for everyone.”

Currently, seating in the restaurant is by reservation only — June slots have been quickly filled; July reservations open on June 1 — but Boni and his team are working on how to best accommodate walk-ins to the space’s unique layout without compromising on the experience.

“Out of the thousands of food experiences in your life, how many come to the top of your head? Less than five, maybe?” Boni asked. “So, I think there’s something special [in] those moments that left you feeling a connection with the people you were with, the food you were eating, and the time that you had.”

“That,” he said, “is the goal.”

261 S 17th Street | 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; gelateria is open 12 to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 12 to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 12 to 8 p.m. Sunday | |

Philly’s Vita gelateria unveils hidden speakeasy-style restaurant (2024)
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