Do you want freshly-made, locally-grown food served with a warm South Austin attitude? Vespaio Ristorante and Enoteca Vespaio bring both–with Italian passion–to the heart of South Congress Avenue.
These culinary cornerstones of the SoCo strip have been setting the standard for Italian food in Austin for decades. The kitchen staff at both restaurants is up and at it early, making pasta, bread, desserts and charcuterie, and prepping all of the daily specials in-house. Much of the food is made using ingredients from the on-site garden, Tecolote Farm in Manor and other local vendors.
Planting South Austin Roots
In 1998, Alan Lazarus, Claude Benayoun, and Scott Bolin decided to partner to open an elegant Italian restaurant on South Congress Avenue. Despite warnings from friends that the area was too edgy to invest in, they stuck to their vision and built Vespaio Ristorante. Co-owner Lazarus originally worked as Executive Chef, but the team soon brought on Executive Chef Ryan Samson, who remains the head and heart of both kitchens today.
Not only did Vespaio survive, but it has long since become one of the anchor restaurants in the rapidly developing neighborhood. In 2005, the team opened Enoteca Vespaio as a more casual restaurant that serves lunch, Sunday brunch and dinner, whereas Vespaio only offers dinner. Both restaurants share an insistence upon housemade everything and a shared feeling of being family.
Vespaio Ristorante exudes a quiet poshness perfect for a special occasion, date or business dinner. As you enter, you may notice the stacks of freshly-baked loaves of bread. Or perhaps the wood-fired oven in the open plan kitchen will catch your eye. Perhaps the fact that the very walls appear to be made from shelves upon shelves of wine will grab your attention.
The starter menu has so many dependable options, including the Wagyu beef carpaccio. The pasta dish I would move mountains for is Pansoti di Zucca—half moon pasta with butternut squash, sage brown butter and walnuts—because that sage brown butter is ridiculously good.
You may want something more classic, such as the Lasagna Alla Bolognese with beef, veal and pork, the Linguine con Vongole with littleneck clams, or a daily special like the recent wood-roasted Arctic char with chicory and blistered shishitos.
Bar Manager Joshua Clark speaks of the wine selection with reverence. It is certainly extensive, including noteworthy Italian and French wines.
I shouldn’t have to tell you to save room for dessert, but do! Italian classics such as tiramisu and gelato hold their own at Vespaio Ristorante.
As the younger sister of the two eateries, Enoteca Vespaio has a breezy bistro feel, with an adorable, umbrella-laden patio and a bakery and antipasti case at the front door that builds anticipation for the meal ahead. The laid-back yet efficient service staff navigate the restaurant with a choreographed ease that hints they’ve worked together forever (and they have). This place instantly puts me at ease because I know what goodness lies ahead.
Not only does Enoteca have a different daily special for cheese, soup, antipasti, salad, pizza, seafood and dessert, but they actually have two! Manager Tiffany Langford explains that because everything is made from scratch using super fresh and local ingredients, they sell out of most specials at lunch and add new ones for dinner.
These are my go-to dishes from the regular menu, all stellar options. To begin, try the fried zucchini or the crowd-pleasing suppli (crispy fried risotto balls with fontina and arrabiata). Follow that up with the healthier but delectable avocado and goat cheese panini on Enoteca’s walnut bread. My top indulgent dishes are the maiale (pork) saltimbocca with prosciutto, lemon-butter sage sauce and sautéed spinach, and duck confit salad. The servings are hearty and the flavors divine.
Enoteca’s dessert case is the stuff of dreams, from the lemon panna cotta to the salted caramel chocolate tart to the macarons of the day. They just introduced a new happy hour menu from 4-6 p.m. from Monday to Friday. In addition to select $5 glasses of wine and $7 specialty cocktails, you can also choose from a $6 light bites menu.
Doing Things Right
Peer recognition and staff retention are two distinct signs that a restaurant knows what it’s doing. Several chefs around Austin have worked at one of these kitchens at some point or another, and it’s not rare to see them dining at their old stomping grounds.
Many employees have stayed for years, some for decades. The managers and servers refer to their colleagues as family. They give off a palpable excitement when discussing the freshness of the food and their most-loved dishes. These factors make me love Vespaio and Enoteca even more and places them on the must-visit list for Austin.
1610 S. Congress Ave. – Website
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