Benvenuti da Vitaly

Monica Parpal |
Food And Dining

If you want real Italian food, travel to Italy. That's what they say, after all. But rumor has it that earlier this year, a little café and restaurant opened in Costa Mesa with the most authentic Italian gelato, espresso, and Italian street food in the county.

Benvenuti da Vitaly,” reads a sign stretched across the bright, modern courtyard at Vitaly Caffe and Gelateria, opened in The Camp shopping and dining center earlier this year. And although it's only been open a few months, husband and wife Owners Maurizio and Barbara Cocchi have spent years dreaming, planning, and preparing. In 2011, they moved their family and their dream from Bologna, Italy, to Costa Mesa, California.

“We knew the area very well, as we traveled to and from California frequently with the apparel business we owned for 20 years,” Maurizio says. “We knew there was an opportunity to make and sell authentic Italian gelato, coffee, and piadina—traditional Italian flatbread. We always thought that one day, sooner or later, we would sell the business and move here.” In 2008, the Cocchis did just that.

Their vision was simple: to create a welcoming café where guests could find authentic Italian street food—the type of fare you can order and walk away with, but in an environment perfect for lingering over an espresso or glass of wine. Focusing on staples from their home region of Emilia-Romagna, the couple spent three years in Italy, studying, researching, and practicing the art of making piadina, gelato, and espresso. They attended Carpigiani Gelato University and worked in gelato shops. They learned from master coffee roasters while brewing espresso at local cafés. They even apprenticed under the region's most long-standing piadina bakers, learning the age-old techniques and recipes to create the traditional flatbread.

In 2011, they moved their family around the world to lay down roots in Costa Mesa. Vitaly was becoming a reality.

“All the gelato equipment and piadina equipment was shipped directly from Italy,” Maurizio says. “And for the first year and a half, we conducted gelato experiments in our home—much to the joy of our new neighbors.” Though the techniques and ingredients go back for centuries, all their recipes and menu items are the Cocchis' own creations. In May of 2013, they opened Vitaly Caffé and Gelateria with the slogan, “Gioie di Vita Italiana”—the joy of the Italian life.

Indeed, Vitaly is joy in its most basic forms. Most of the menu items are simple products eaten in a simple way—in a cone, on a piece of flatbread—but they are all handmade, and the ingredients are top-quality. 

“We believe that if you make the food by hand with the best ingredients, the quality is 10 times better than what you can buy in a store,” Maurizio says. “That's our goal with all our menu items—from our gelato to our breads and pastas.” 

One of the best parts is that guests can watch it all happen. The restaurant has two kitchens—a gelato kitchen and a hot kitchen—both of which feature glass windows from the dining area. Guests can look inside to see Chef Danilo Venturi, another Bologna native, making rich and savory pasta dishes from scratch, and preparing the soft, warm, made-to-order piadina flatbread for sandwiches.

According to Maurizio, the traditional piadina counters many preconceptions of Italian food. Made with organic flour, the light, airy bread doesn't mask the flavors of the “toppings”—options like prosciutto, mozzarella, tomato, and salmon. “A piadina makes an enjoyable lunch or dinner when you only have 20 minutes, or when you're on the move,” Maurizio says. Guests who stay can enjoy the pleasant, modern dining room or the cozy courtyard, both of which offer ample space to sit around a table with friends, order a bottle of wine, and share a platter of authentic Italian cheese and cold cuts.

The Cocchis have the heritage, the experience, and the passion—but this industry wouldn't be what it is without its share of challenges. “The biggest challenge we've faced so far has been finding the right ingredients,” Maurizio says. “Our goal is to obtain the same high-quality products we had access to in Italy, but from local sources here in California. “We use beet sugar in our gelato, which is common in Italy. It's not nearly as common here, but I was able to find it.” 

When Maurizio cannot locate the ideal products in California, he looks to Italian importers. “We import items like Crescenza cheese, Parmigiano, and prosciutto from Parma and Bologna. Other items are harder to find—like the hazelnuts we import from Piedmont, and pistachios from Sicily. It took me about a year to find those particular producers.” He sources his espresso beans from a Bolognese roaster called Filicori, as well as Kean, a Newport Beach roaster. 

Maurizio and Barbara are all too pleased to bring a piece of their home to Costa Mesa. “Our family is so happy to bring real Italian products and flavors to the area,” Maurizio says. “The only things we miss from home that we cannot ship to California are, of course, our friends and family,” Maurizio chuckles.

“The best compliment we receive is when people tell us how the food makes them feel,” Barbara says. “Many of our American guests say coming to Vitaly is just like taking a short trip to Italy.” 

“And I have to say,” Maurizio add, “Americans are just so much fun to serve. It's an unbelievable joy to see our guests so eager to try new things.” He recalls a recent afternoon when, after experimenting with a basil and tomato gelato, he took a full pan of gelato into the dining room and asked if anyone wanted to try a new flavor. “I think 15 or 20 people raised their hands,” he says, laughing. “In Italy, people are more conservative. Here, people are eager to try something new. That's a beautiful thing.”

Vitaly is still young, but customer demand continues to drive new menu items. The Cocchis plan to expand the breakfast menu, and later this summer they hope to implement small, in-house Italian dinners—one- or two-plate specials like Fettuccine with Italian Meatballs and Lasagna Bolognese. Maurizio will call them Mama Dinners—fresh, Italian comfort foods just like Mama used to make. 

“This is the same type of food people in Italy have eaten for generations,” Barbara chimes in. “This is food that our grandmothers made. At Vitaly, we want to get back to the practice of putting love into our food.”