Business & Real Estate

Ristorante reversal: From Bella Vita to La Scala

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Ristorante Bella Vita closed July 10 after Jan Unlu had a falling out with his business partner. However, Unlu said he plans to reopen under a new name: Ristorante La Scala.

Jan Unlu said things “didn’t work out” between him and his business partner, leading to a temporary closure of downtown mainstay Ristorante Bella Vita July 10. But much to the relief of the restaurant’s regulars, Ristorante Bella Vita is set to reopen in a few weeks under a new name: Ristorante La Scala.

Unlu, who declined to identify his former business partner, sees the restaurant’s renaming and remodeling as a fresh start. His original plan for this year, already in the works, was to open a European eatery on Main Street called Los Altos Bakery & Cafe that would offer something for nearly everyone: organic brunch foods, freshly ground espresso and an assortment of wines. Now, he has put his cafe plans on hold just one week before he was set to sign the lease.

“This gave me a loss, but it also gave me an opportunity to open and (try) something different,” Unlu said of pausing work on the cafe and focusing instead on La Scala.

Taking chances

There are still some unknowns about Ristorante La Scala’s opening, which Unlu has mapped out for two to three weeks from now. He has retained some staff, including a chef he described as “a very good guy,” but needs to hire more employees. He had to reapply for licensing to serve all kinds of alcoholic beverages, but he may just open prior to receiving the license and “let people bring their wine.”

The menu for La Scala is still up in the air as well, though Unlu said he has considered testing out his European cafe concept in the morning and serving the typical Italian food one could expect from Bella Vita at night if he “finds the right crew.”

These are just the variables of business, according to Unlu, who has more than two decades of experience buying, flipping and selling restaurants up and down the Peninsula.

“The big point (that) makes a good business is risk,” Unlu said. “If you don’t take risks, you cannot make it.”

Bella Vita was among the restaurants Unlu purchased, operated and sold. He maintained ownership of the building, and when the tenant had problems in 2002, he stepped back in as an investor and consultant before taking half of the business shares back, keeping the tenant’s name of Bella Vita over the previous incarnation, Silan. At that time, Unlu had a restaurant empire of his own through the creation and handoffs of Bocce in San Francisco, Scala Mia in Menlo Park, Cafe Maremonti in Palo Alto and, appropriately, La Scala in Burlingame.

Unlu knows his history with the Los Altos location is unorthodox – especially considering that he plans to redevelop the building into multifamily housing within five years. Unlu and his architect, Brett Bailey of the Dahlin Group, attended the Los Altos Planning Commission meeting Aug. 1 to gauge commissioners’ reactions to their initial designs for a four-story, 15-unit condo complex with one underground level of parking and a rooftop deck.

Unlu is used to being told he’s crazy, and he admits to being at least a little crazy.

“When I opened La Scala in Burlingame in 1992, it was a very bad economy,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘You’re not going to do business.’ And it was like an hour wait to get in, even until midnight. … To make it, you have to think big, work hard and be honest. That’s what I tell my kids.”

Looking ahead

The businessman estimated he is out approximately $300,000 as a result of the demise of Bella Vita; he knows he probably won’t make that back before he transitions uses of the property. That isn’t the aim; rather, it’s providing a place for the community he loves and has been included in since even before he moved from Los Altos Hills to Los Altos 12 years ago.

“Sometimes it’s not about the money – it’s about what you do, the principle of the thing,” Unlu said.

Unlu would be happy to lease the space for now and allow an interested party to assume operations at La Scala for the next few years as he plans his new cafe and multifamily housing projects. The problem is that the short, defined time period is unattractive to the usual entrepreneurs.

“Nobody will take it and invest money for (only) five years,” Unlu said. “If you want to do it, someone, I can give you the key. I don’t want anything. Just give me my rent. I will just go get some coffee; that’s my new hobby.”

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