Tag Archives: Vespa restaurant

Arrivederci, Vespa. Welcome, The ‘Port.

In its 2 1/2 years in Westport, Vespa earned the loyalty of many customers.

Unfortunately, they came almost entirely on Friday and Saturday nights.

Owner Bobby Werhane thought there was a demand for “a New York style, modern rustic restaurant” in that location.

There was. But attracting diners on more casual weekdays was tough. Though the 155 seats inside were filled — and in summer, the 60-seat patio was packed — the size of National Hall, plus the difficulty of scheduling employees for both peak and slow times, led to what Werhane admits was “inconsistency.”

“The Cottage and the Whelk are small enough to do well consistently,” he says. “They’ve got a small, constant staff, and a tight menu. Their expenses are manageable. It was a lot tougher for us.”

The Inn at National Hall. Vespa most recently occupied the ground floor.

One of the things he enjoyed most about  Vespa was establishing strong relationships with guests. One was Sal Augeri.

A 14-year Westporter with 2 kids, Augeri — a Wall Street guy — was thinking about the next phase of his life. He’d always been interested in restaurants; he was involved in his town, so …

… welcome to the new spot that’s taking Vespa’s place. It’s called …

… The ‘Port.

It aims to fill a niche that Augeri believew is lacking in Westport’s restaurant scene: an “approachable, authentic experience.” He calls it “a place to go after your kids’ practice, or for a quick bite with friends. But a place that also has a definite local flavor.”

The ‘Port — our town’s sometime nickname — hopes to convey a real Westport vibe. Vespa’s white walls and beautiful surfaces will remain; some banquettes and communal spaces will be added, and “Westport stuff” put on the walls. Soon, the owners hope, the iconic building will be filled with people, 7 days a week.

“Owners” is exactly the right word. Augeri’s company — SMA Hospitality — is the majority owner and operating partner. Twenty-three investors have joined the 10 original Vespa backers. That’s 33 families, all with young kids and town ties.

Local designers Alli DiVincenzo and Michele Cosentino teamed up with Westport architect Lucien Vita of the Vita Design Group to brand and design the interior of The ‘Port.

The restaurant will also hire Staples students as busboys. (The last place that did that may have been the Arrow.)

The ‘Port will be “family friendly.” Augeri says that means “simple, basic, good food that people want”: an excellent burger. The “Port Club” signature chicken sandwich. Fish, pastas, fresh salads, great wings.

Milk and fresh lemonade for children — drinks that are healthier than most restaurants’ sodas and juice boxes.

Dessert includes homemade brownies and Chipwiches. “I don’t need tiramisu,” Augeri laughs.

Chef Justin Kaplan last worked in Lake Tahoe. This will be the 7th restaurant he’s opened.

He looks forward to “rustic, home-style cooking done right. We’re designing this menu for our guests — not the chefs’ egos.”

Chef Justin Kaplan (left) and operating partner Sal Augeri. (Photo/Allyson Monson)

“Family friendly” means the owners hope The ‘Port will be the place that Staples Players and middle school actors go to celebrate after shows. What about the diner — the current favorite spot? “We’ll do special events for the cast,” Augeri promises.

He will also provide discounts for veterans, police officers and firefighters, along with special post-Back to School Night promotions. Augeri adds, “teachers will be glad we’re there. A lot of times they’re looking for a 4-to-6 p.m. spot.”

A couple of TVs will draw guests for big events, like the NCAA Final Four, US Open tennis or a Champions League championship. But — although he’s deeply involved in the Westport PAL, and he hopes teams will gather there after big wins — Augeri claims, “this is not a sports bar. It’s a restaurant with TVs.”

The projected opening date is a month from now. See you at The ‘Port.

Vespa Is Very, Very Open!

I screwed up.

A reliable source told me yesterday evening that Vespa — the popular Italian and Mediterranean restaurant that has helped revitalize the National Hall neighborhood — was closed.

I called. I got a recording. It said the restaurant was closed Monday and Tuesday. But this was Wednesday.

I posted a story.

Vespa — I learned quickly — is quite open. I took down the story.

Vespa is warm and inviting. This view is toward the Post Road, where it meets Riverside Avenue.

Vespa is warm and inviting. This view is toward the Post Road, where it meets Riverside Avenue.

But damage had been done. Owner Bobby Werhane — one of the real good guys — fielded calls from guests who’d booked dinner and holiday events. He and his staff reassured everyone that they are indeed open for business.

My too-hasty post may have impacted not only all of Vespa’s many fans, but its over 40 employees.

So, to repeat: Vespa is alive and well.

Go there. Eat there.

Tell Bobby I sent you.

Historic Fountain Disappears

Monday’s post about Vespa and Neat restaurants included some interesting back stories about their respective locations: National Hall and the Vigilant Firehouse. It included this photo of the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road.

National Hall - Riverside - Wilton Rd - early 1900s

Alert “06880” reader Jack Harder wondered: “Whatever happened to the fountain/horse trough in the middle of Wilton Road?”

That got another alert reader — Elaine Marino — thinking. A Google search led her to this photo:

Westport downtown fountain

It was taken on the boardwalk behind — yes — National Hall and the old fire station.

But a caption from October, 2013 on the website she found it on — Panoramio — reads: “This fountain is gone! I am missing this piece and it should be placed back where it was originally!”

That’s right. The fountain has vanished. Which raises 3 questions:

  • Was the fountain on the boardwalk the same trough in the early 1900s photo?
  • When and why was it removed?
  • Where is it now?

Alert readers who know — or who have memories of the fountain — should click “Comments” below.

Keeping History, Adding Excitement To Saugatuck’s West Bank

Bobby Werhane graduated from Cornell’s hospitality school. But he’s the first to admit he wasn’t really into the industry.

A finance major, he did “what every Cornell lacrosse player does,” he says. He went to Wall Street.

It was the summer of 2001. The economy was not great. He got a job with a “chop shop boiler room financial firm,” and an apartment in a brand-new high-rise on Chambers Street.

One morning a few weeks later, he heard a loud crash. He looked outside his window, and saw what he thought was a Cessna piercing the World Trade Center.

Bobby Werhane

Bobby Werhane

He went out on his balcony overlooking the Hudson, and called his father. While on his cell, he saw a plane banking hard to the left. Seconds later, it slammed into the other Twin Tower.

Neighbors poured into his apartment. A man was on the phone, talking to his mother in one of the WTC buildings. As they spoke, the building collapsed.

“I was going to be like everyone else,” Bobby says. “That day, my path diverged.”

A Cornell lax alum hired Bobby to run his popular midtown cafe/bar, Local. At 22, Bobby was bitten by the hospitality bug.

He went on to own, operate and sell 8 different restaurants, bars and supper clubs in New York. One was Gin Lane, in the Meatpacking District. Another was Johnny Utah’s near Rockefeller Center. A 3rd — Scarpetta — earned 3 stars from the New York Times.

Bobby learned about the artisan craft of cooking, and locally sourced quality products. But owning rock-and-roll bars did not seem “genuine” to him.

L'ArtusiHis next restaurant, Dell’Anima, created a real family environment. Then came L’Artusi, which really took off.

But Bobby became a father. Life grew more complicated. He asked his partners to buy him out. He used the profits to open Spasso, a small, rustic Italian place in the West Village.

Six years ago, his wife got pregnant again. “The only people we knew with kids lived in Westport,” he says.

They moved to Saugatuck Shores. “It was a beach shack with no air conditioning,” he recalls. “But it was on the water. We thought it was a palace. We loved it.”

They moved again, to Compo Beach. Hurricane Irene deposited 4 feet of water in their home; Hurricane Sandy brought 8 feet. Their 3rd child was due 3 weeks later. The family moved to Coleytown, then Green’s Farms. All along, Bobby commuted to New York.

One of Bobby’s best customers was a principal in Greenfield Partners. The real estate investment firm is headquartered in National Hall. Bobby and he talked about the renaissance going on across the Saugatuck River from downtown. The arrival of Bartaco, the new development planned for Save the Children, the success of Arezzo and more sounded enticing.

National Hall -- and the west bank of the Saugatuck River -- are among the most iconic scenes in Westport. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

National Hall — and the west bank of the Saugatuck River — are among the most iconic scenes in Westport. Even in snow they are alluring. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

“Growing up, I lived in the Midwest, Texas and Baltimore,” Bobby says. “I wanted roots.”

He found them in Westport. Now he’s digging them even deeper, on Saugatuck’s west bank.

Late last summer Bobby opened Neat. He loved the concept of the Darien spot — lovingly detailed coffee during the day, hand-crafted cocktails at night — and brought it to the former Vigilant firehouse on Wilton Road.

Neat uses the long space of the old Vigilant Firehouse well. There's a popular bar, and plenty of room for tables. (Photo/Riscala Agnese Design Group)

Neat uses the long space of the old Vigilant Firehouse well. There’s a popular bar, and plenty of room for tables. (Photo/Riscala Agnese Design Group)

“Restaurants are all about location. And this location is all about history,” he says. “I want this to be a communal place. There’s nothing more communal than a firehouse. And when it was a pizza place (Da Rosa’s Brick Oven), that was communal too.”

On Christmas Eve Bobby opened Vespa, just a few steps away. It’s on the ground floor of National Hall, occupying the space that once was Zanghi, and then a real estate office mortgage company.

Vespa’s location is even more important than Neat’s. National Hall dates back to the mid-1800s. For well over a century it served Westport as a bank, meeting hall, the very 1st site of Staples High School, and a furniture store.

In the early 1900s, National Hall (seen here from the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road) was one of the most important spots in town.

In the early 1900s, National Hall (seen here from the muddy intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road) was one of the most important spots in town.

It fell into disuse though, and sat abandoned for years. In the 1990s, Arthur Tauck rescued it from the wrecking ball. He turned it into an upscale hotel (and donated the old-fashioned lamps lining the Post Road bridge).

Bobby opened up and brightened the ground floor. He envisioned a sophisticated menu — but also a place where anyone could hang out at the bar, enjoying a bowl of homemade pasta.

He’s succeeded. Vespa is lively. It’s fun. The food is superb. And there are special touches, like a traditional “Italian Sunday supper.” (From 4-8 p.m., the food — antipasti, salads, chicken, fish, whatever the chef comes up with  — just keeps coming.)

Vespa is warm and inviting. This view is toward the Post Road, where it meets Riverside Avenue.

Vespa is warm and inviting. This view is toward the Post Road, where it meets Riverside Avenue. (Photo/Riscala Agnese Design Group)

There have been speed bumps. The horrendous winter kept many Westporters from venturing out. Some  folks don’t realize there is plenty of parking, across the street and in the Save the Children lot.

But Bobby keeps smiling. As soon as  the weather clears, he’ll put tables outside. The very cool Vespa vibe will move outdoors, making the west side of the river even more exciting since — well, the mid-1800s.

How neat is that?