Valter Nassi was a foodie, an Italian restaurateur, born in Tuscany. His craft was his pride.
Valter died a few weeks ago, at 76, and I wasn’t expecting to be so emotional about it. I wanted to take some time exploring the artistry and the fantastic restaurant which inspired the building of my advisory practice.
Valter was a unique, eccentric free spirit: passionate, creative, and full of love for his people. He kept his white hair at shoulder length and rotated through glasses that always paired with thoughtful layers of semi-formal clothes. His energy was half the draw. So I brought my favorite folks there to dine, at least in part to connect with him. Yes—he delivered an incredible meal with kindness, personalization, and positivity. But he also brought unconditional love to those coming to enjoy a plate of food in his space.
I often left feeling inspired to share the same love with my clients, many of whom were compensating me far more than what Valter earned from the margin on angel hair pasta. Humbling.
His restaurant was a respite for me. I don’t have a lot of those spaces anymore. Places to go where I can find comfort, rest, and ritual. A place to go where there will be no judgment, just acceptance. I’ve often thought about making my conference room, office, and Zoom calls more like his space.
Most of what I know about Valter came through his stories, passed along to me in broken English over dinner conversations. So everything I’m sharing comes from him and assumptions I’ve made through conversations. I’m sure there’s much more to his story than what I know—I hope it’s not all as idyllic as it seems—but we’re here to talk about the good bits.
He told me he came to Salt Lake City in his 50s, looked up at the mountains, and said: this is my city! He was a great storyteller, and he even told stories through his menu:
Because he was sharing his story, you felt like family. He was open, vulnerable, and willing to offer some parts of his story to the rest of us.
His success was not a straight line to the top. He started his business at an age when many of the tech entrepreneurs at Silicon Slopes have long since retired, in his 50s.
Before his success in founding Valter’s, he failed in his first restaurant startup. That must have been hard. Starting a business in your 50’s and failing. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to try again at that age. I’ve failed before, but looking at re-launching your career at that point is different. Launching Elements, I’ve seen a lot of financial advisors open a beautiful new chapter in their careers.
After that failure, he must have been broken. He worked another job as head chef at a restaurant called Cucina Toscana. He wasn’t out and about, roaming the floor like he would in his next adventure. He stewed in the kitchen, behind closed doors, experimenting, testing, and making amazing food. That restaurant became one of the finest restaurants in SLC. I went there several times and remember having one of the best Osso Buco of my life with my wife, Barbie. He worked there for many years, I think more than a decade.
But the startup bug must have been too much to handle: I think his authentic vision was stewing and eventually too much for him to keep in, especially as an artist. He wanted to paint, draw, cook, share, create, build, and manifest the pictures in his mind. I think deep down, we all long for our authentic values to align with our work. If you’ve ever sat in that inauthentic space for a while, restricted from sharing your true self, you eventually die inside or burst out and evolve. I kind of think of Valter’s time at Cucina as his cocoon.
When he opened the doors, his restaurant vision was magical, new, and beautiful, and he called it Valter’s Osteria. He selected a space that was kitty-corner to Cucina. I don’t know the story of the separation there, but finding something that was kitty-corner to his former home was either a unique combination of luck, or very deliberate, patient strategy. Finding downtown SLC real estate isn’t easy to navigate, especially when you’re not independently wealthy, so I’m thinking the latter.
Sadly, Cucina tried to stay open. And because most folks aren’t super discerning about their food, and didn’t realize it was Valter’s magic that grew the business, it stayed open for quite some time. But after a few years, it died and was replaced by a well-intentioned, tier-2 Italian chain, Bucca Di Beppo.
Valter’s Osteria was different. It was bustling very quickly. No one knew Valter in the city until he opened a restaurant with his name on it. It was a totally different concept. Open kitchen, visibility into the artistry that was behind the doors. It became the most popular Italian restaurant in Utah by a mile. For me, his restaurant was my favorite food experience in SLC. I think most people agreed. Even though they could seat nearly 100 people, you couldn’t (and still can’t) find a walk-in seat and would need to make reservations far in advance.
He trained his staff to be thoughtful, gentle, and service-oriented to all those who came in.
As you walked into the space, you were immediately greeted by photographs of celebrities and NBA basketball stars. The entire Golden State Warriors team liked to rent out the whole restaurant when they were in town. San Francisco has such a great food scene, it’s no surprise to me that they chose Valter’s when they were in town.
At the end of every meal, he treated you to a small 2-ounce cup of semi-sweet, rich chocolate in a cup paired with a small homemade almond cookie. It was so delicate. Restaurants don’t do that kind of thing anymore. The little nuances show creativity and love for the craft.
They prepared many of the appetizers and dishes tableside. I loved the cantaloupe, balsamic, and prosciutto, and the angel-hair pasta with lemon and fresh cream. One of my favorite experiences is their lemon gelato prepared with sea salt and honey tableside. A large, transparent glass bottle of honey is slowly drizzled over your gelato and sprinkled with appropriately coarse sea salt. The gelato was never too firm, soft enough to start melting and leave you feeling so refreshed and satisfied. It’s an experience—it’s not just food.
Those small details are difficult to sustain when you’re always staring at the numbers, wondering if you’re profitable enough. But if you’re more incentivized by the experience than the profit, those are the details you simply don’t compromise on. Ever.
When the experience dies, so does the business.
For some people, 76 seems like an early age to pass on, but I don’t think about life in terms of years lived. Leaving it all out there, on the floor, and not letting your mind fade into a place that isn’t useful.
We all have limited life to live. And many of us think about it in terms of days, years, and decades. But it’s not that simple. We don’t live in days, weeks, and years.
We live in moments. In conversations.
I like that about meals. They are conversations. Think about how many conversations you’re going to have with one of your aging friends or parents who are sitting in their 70s.
Do you sit with them once a year, twice? Once a month?
In any case, think about the math. You have 10 years left with your parents, do you have 10 real conversations left?
If you knew you only had 10 conversations left with your wife, your lover, your kids, your parents, a client, or a friend? What do you want them to remember?
What if you only have one conversation left?
What would you say?
I think we know the answer.
You’d leave them with as much love and appreciation as you could muster. You’d hold them and make sure that they knew how much you deeply loved them. Ok, maybe not quite that much mush for your clients, but maybe? You get my point.
My wife didn’t realize she did this, but after Valter’s passing, she whipped up a dish she hadn’t made in years. She made homemade ice cream with fresh peaches on top.
I picked up my perfectly weighted spoon, turned it over and pushed the peaches around the dish. The fresh vanilla bean cream had melted some into the dish. I took a scoop and was instantly transported back to my childhood in Idaho.
Fresh peaches. Vanilla ice cream on a hot summer’s day. A moment, a conversation with my Grandparents.
Valter told me that he had his first cup of gelato in his mother’s kitchen. Tuscany. It was lemon. Fresh lemon.
When he moved to Utah, he became interested in the “beehive” culture of our state. He loved honey, and when he moved here, he started adding honey to his gelato.
I looked up at my wife and couldn’t help shedding a tear as I thought about how strange it was that I felt so touched by someone who I never knew very well. Valter and I weren’t close, but I knew we shared the same passion for life, and the love we both felt for our deepest relationships.
Thanks, Valter. You left me with so many memories that only a gifted artist knows how to create. Some of my most cherished moments, conversations, and memories happened in your space.
Of all the creations that industry has blessed me with, your food on a plate was perhaps my favorite to date.
RIP, I’m looking forward to what you create the next time around.