Food & Wine

What’s a restaurant to do in a pandemic? Expand?!

Cafe Vitale's new kitchen
Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Ruben Gomez and partners doubled the kitchen size at Cafe Vitale, providing space and air for its staff, who are cooking for take-away and outdoor dining.

Cafe Vitale has been known as a tiny Italian staple of Los Altos’ Loyola Corners neighborhood for a decade, and when the coronavirus pandemic closed indoor dining, patrons swung by to show their support in orders of pizza, pasta or tiramisu.

Ruben Gomez had been dreaming of a renovation for years with his partners in the restaurant. In a time when food service businesses face huge stress and uncertainty, they decided to go forward with the project. Across June and August, they redid the kitchen and dining area and expanded into a new dining space next door.

In addition to creating the banquet room for private events – and perhaps a monthly night of live music – the remodel also turns out to allow for a future of spaced-out indoor dining. A space intended to host 70 can now accommodate 10 tables of carefully distanced families, whenever indoor dining resumes with new rules in place. The kitchen has been rebuilt with more space for its workers, doubling in size, as well as amped-up ventilation, and Gomez said that to his mind, “this will be one of the safest places in town.”

Cafe Vitale’s dining, broken into three indoor seating areas, outdoor tables along Fremont Avenue and two patios behind the eatery, limit the number of diners sharing any one space. The cafe’s landlord signed off on stretching spaced-out seating down the length of the covered walkway fronting on Fremont Avenue on evenings when outdoor diners turn up in numbers that give a small hint of what dining once looked like in Los Altos.

“For us, it is priceless to see all these people very happy,” Gomez said of watching people arrive for a meal away from the homebound concerns of this era.

He said people are ordering pretty much the same food as always, and he credits Cafe Vitale’s from-scratch cooking with the positive reactions he sees, rather than any pandemic-inspired desperation to taste food not cooked by yourself.

Dining ‘destiny’

Gomez credits “destiny” – with a twinkle in his eye – when asked how he landed in Los Altos in 2015, buying Cafe Vitale from its originators. He’d been working at an Italian restaurant in Half Moon Bay, Mezzaluna, for years and is a self-made Italian aficionado, having worked his way up through kitchens from dishwasher to cook to bus boy to server since moving to the area in 1986.

“The support we have had since COVID-19 is amazing,” he said. “When it started in March, people came in for takeout and were always asking, ‘Are you OK? Is there anything we can do to help?’”

If you spend time asking Gomez how he and his staff have been handling the trying times, he will garrulously walk you through the rewards of hard work and tolerance for a little suffering. To quote his grandma, “You have to be honest, and live in peace, and be happy with what you have.”

Cafe Vitale's 'balcony'The new interiors at Cafe Vitale reflect some of this romantic outlook, with soft lighting, weathered wood finishes and huge colorful photos of the European cafes none of us will be experiencing in person anytime soon.

The newly expanded banquet area is Gomez’s “valley of dreams,” to quote a relevant lyric from Glenn Miller’s heyday. A second-story balcony gestures at the romance of Romeo and Juliet by way of Tuscany. Gomez already has a corner mentally staked out as the location for a low-slung stage with a mic for the monthly “dinner concerts” he wants to host, where participants can debut an impromptu song. Or, in his case, the tenderly rehearsed ballad, “Moonlight Serenade,” that he already has prepared.

Cafe Vitale is located at 987 Fremont Ave. For more information, visit cafevitale.com.

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