Mike Dunn: Saying goodbye to beloved Vinny and La Roma

 “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” — Dr. Seuss.

This famous Dr. Seuss saying sums it up for me – and perhaps for many of you, too – as, collectively, we wrap our brains around the recently announced news that, in just a few short weeks, after a 37 year run serving THE BEST Italian food in Salisbury, Vinny Bellia is closing the doors on his, and our, beloved La Roma Restaurant.

37 years! Just. Wow.

How do we even begin to put this into context? Let’s try this. Let’s start at the beginning. For  Vinny, that start came in the place of his birth, his beloved Sicily, the mystical and beautiful island that lies just off the Italian coast, at Italy’s boot. From there, Vinny and his family made their way to New York City, where cozy Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen. Looking to make a fresh start, and with a wife and two kids in tow, Vinny moved to, of ALL places, Salisbury. Vinny’s dad used to do a lot of business on the Eastern Shore, and he’d spotted the vacant restaurant on Route 13 during one of his trips through the area. The year was 1978.

Leaving all he knew and loved behind, Vinny came here. And, boy…Did. He. Come. Here! In 37 years of walking into and out of that (once) little vacant restaurant nearly every day, Vinny transformed it into a legendary Salisbury eatery. We flocked to it in droves, slowly at first. But, over time, and with one good meal after another under our belts, we returned. And, as we did, La Roma became what every restaurant hopes to become: THE place to eat and be seen; THE place where you loved the food, and you loved the company; THE place where, on the walk to your table, you ran into no less than five to 10 other people who were there for the same reason you were. THE place where….you wanted to eat slowly, so as to better soak in the food – or to better enjoy the company you were with. The place where….you just felt cozy.

Vinny came here, and knew no one. He leaves, and everybody knows him.

By virtue of his signature dishes and his charm and smile, he won us over. One by one. We all kept coming back. And, for each of us, our Vinny experience(s) became uniquely our own. That was his magical touch. It seemed that Vinny was able to create a special, unique relationship with every single one of us. Think about it. As you read this, YOUR Vinny stories are coming to mind. As I write this, mine are. I think of planning community events there (that’s you, Kim Hudson and the Winter Wonderland of Lights crew); I think of my friends who made Vinny’s their special spot for date nights (that’s you Brian and Katherine McAllister); I think of the many regulars who made Vinny’s their couple’s spot, the place to catch up on things (that’s you Bill and Marlene Rinnier, and Mike and Joanna Abercrombie); I think of the family who, way back in 1996 turned to, who else, Vinny to cater the Irish wake after the funeral of their mother (that’s you Beth, Bobby and Judy, and for you, Mom!); I think of the night my wife and I went to La Roma to celebrate our anniversary (that’s you Karen) and were joined, the ENTIRE time, by, Vinny, of course!

You see how it worked for Vinny? He made his restaurant seem like an extension of his world, to us. And we made his restaurant seem like an extension of our world, to him.

For the record, Vinny is stepping aside because, well, because he’s been doing this for 37 years, and that’s a LONG time in the restaurant world. And also because the year(s) long construction of the pipes under Route 13 in front of his business took its toll, and because someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. (How could I pass up that line when writing about a Sicilian??) Seriously, someone did make him a good offer – and he took it. A new restaurant will be opening there in 2016.

As for Vinny himself? Well, he’s planning to figure it all out – and just relax for a bit. But, he says he’s not done cooking. Not yet. He’s got some ideas churning inside his head. So, stand by on that. I think we’re going to hear from him again. In the meantime, Vinny is having an unofficial “Come say goodbye and celebrate and tell some good stories and enjoy a drink and some food” party Thursday night — Dec. 10. (That’s tonight for those keeping score at home.) Vinny’s last day at La Roma is Dec. 31.

So, what does one say to Vinny, for all he’s provided us? What do his old customers say? What do all of his old employees say? What do all of our, and his, memories say – if they had a voice? I think two words might work best, two words that – as a community – capture it all for our dear friend: “Ciao Bella!!”

Mike Dunn, who operates the OneSalisbury website, is a lifelong Salisbury resident.

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