Dining Out: After 36 years, there still only one Vinny’s LaRoma

Vinny Bellia good-naturedly refers to himself as the grandfather of Italian food in Salisbury.

He talked about that self-proclaimed title one unseasonably hot afternoon as he chatted with a guest, dabbed at his forehead and took a sip of ice water in the restaurant that has been a town landmark since 1978.

He and his father opened it after the senior Bellia, Joe, spotted the South Salisbury Boulevard location, where a Roy Rogers had been, and immediately knew it was an ideal location for a hometown Italian establishment.

“I’m from Brooklyn. We had restaurants there, and my father liked this area, so we came here. I ran it with him. He died five years ago,” Bellia said. His son, also named Joe, is his head cook now.

Bellia still cooks from time to time, too, for customers who request his veteran skills. His best customer is his 86-year-old mother, Gaetana Bellia. He prepares her meals every day.

“I’ve been doing this 36 years. When we first came here, some people didn’t know what eggplant was. They said, ‘What? It’s an egg and a plant?’ They had to ask me what gnocchi is,” he said, laughing. “Now people are much more educated about food and they know what everything is.”

“What we have is southern Italian food. We use a lot of red sauce and garlic. That’s southern Italian cooking. In northern Italy they use more butter and creams,” he explained, pausing to greet a customer, who kissed his cheek and introduced her friend, dining the restaurant for the first time.

Among menu items at Vinny’s, lasagna is a favorite, as well as eggplant dishes, fried calamari, bruschetta, mozzarella sticks and tomato caprese. Many customers order spaghetti dinners topped with sauce made fresh every day. Seafood is popular, as well as pizza, chicken and veal dishes.

“We have steaks, too. Some people tell me, ‘I didn’t know I could get a steak at an Italian restaurant.’ Italians eat steaks, too,” he said with a smile.

For children, there’s macaroni and cheese, made with ziti blended with American and provolone.

The restaurant has a full bar, Italian wines, beers and coffees.

“The important thing to us is, we cook real Italian food. Everything is fresh and nothing is frozen. We make your meals to order. If a customer says, ‘Vinny, I can’t have salt in my sauce,’ I’ll make it for him. A few customers ask for gluten-free, so we have gluten-free pasta on request. The same for vegetarians. We have spinach salad and eggplant and excellent white pizza with no sauce. It has cheese, sliced tomatoes and basil. It’s really good,” he said.

Desserts include tiramisu and cannoli, plus fried balls of dough covered with powdered sugar.

Bellia learned to cook from his grandmother, and as he talked about her, he remembered family dishes like spleen, comparable to the taste of liver, and traditional rice balls filled with peas and meat, one of her specialties. Her meals fed the family and the soul and he has been careful to follow that tradition.

“If you say, ‘Vinny, make me something special,’ I’ll do that for you,” he said.

The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and has take-out and party platters. Return customers are fond of music playing in the background and being about to visit with Bellia.

“Everybody who comes in likes the atmosphere. They get a pizza or spaghetti. The food is good and Vinny’s here,” he said.

“They come over and talk. People like that.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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