Vita Totta's restaurant, V's Restaurant, was her life's dream
By Brandon Dumsky
It was just an ordinary day for Vita Totta a couple summers ago when a surprising encounter happened.
Totta was outside busily tending the restaurant that she opened over a half century ago, when a "big, gorgeous bike" stopped in the parking lot.
She recalls the motorcyclist was a man in his 30s who stepped off his ride, walked up to her and simply said, "I think of you often."
"There were too many men in my life," jokes Totta. "I can't remember all of them."
She was perplexed about who this man was. He had to explain that he now lives in Texas with his family and owns a barbershop, and he said if it wasn't for his time working at V's Italiano Ristorante, he wouldn't be where he is today.
That’s just one of the stories former and current employees tell about V's Restaurant; particularly Vita, who is known to many as "Momma V." The matriarch, along with her husband, Jay, opened a small cafe near the then new Interstate 70 in 1963. That small cafe, which could only house 35 people, eventually grew into the destination restaurant it is today. It has been located the past 42 years at 10809 E. U.S. 40 in Independence.
"Pick a job you love and you will succeed," says Vita on how her restaurant has stayed in business all this time. She also says her love of people and her passion for feeding them contributed to the restaurant's longevity as well.
And despite being retired for nearly 20 years, Vita comes by V's "only every day," as current owner Greg Hunsucker puts it, whether to trim the bushes outside, prune the vines on the arbor near the front entrance or paint the window shutters. Her tremendous work ethic was carried on by her family and instilled in the employees who had the chance to work there -- and that is what she would like to be remembered most for: Giving young people the opportunity to become responsible individuals.
Ask any one of V's patrons, some who have been dining there for more than 40 years, to describe the establishment, and they'll always mention the atmosphere, the friendliness of the staff, and their signature spaghetti and meatballs. It's perhaps the closest thing the greater Kansas City area has to the old and popular TV show, "Cheers." Both places are known for their camaraderie and hospitality and everybody knows your name.
Recently the Missouri Restaurant Association's board of directors unanimously selected V's Restaurant to be inducted into its Hall of Fame. According to MRA Executive Director Bob Bonney, V's is "darn near perfect" when it came to meeting criteria in order to be inducted. He says a Missouri restaurant has to be in the business a minimum of 25 years and improve the community in which they operate by providing good jobs, have the highest standards of business ethics and exhibit betterment for the industry as a whole.
In early January, 500 restaurateurs from all over the state gathered at The Westin Kansas City at Crown Center for the induction ceremony, including all of Vita's 24 children and grandchildren.
"It was a black tie event. Very fancy," she says about the recognition. "You wouldn't believe how honored I was." During her acceptance speech, she said how proud she was to be in an industry that gives young people the opportunity to become dependable and honest and grow; just like that motorcyclist who stopped by V's one summer day to give thanks.
The story of V's Restaurant begins with a trip Vita and her family made in the early 1960s to visit a relative.
"We all took a trip to California to visit Jay's cousin who owned a pizza shop out there," Vita recalls. She told her husband that once they returned home to Missouri, she was going to open a pizza shop herself.
"I don't care, honey," she remembers how Jay replied. She and Jay had known each other since they were children. Her sister happened to marry one of his brothers, she says.
"I chased him until he caught me," Vita fondly recalls. She continued that she came from a very traditional Italian family; her parents only allowed her to attend a school dance if they chaperoned.
"They were old school alright." She also said it had to be true love if Jay could put up with that.
After returning from California and with all of her four children now in school, Vita scoured through the classified section of a newspaper in hopes of finding a waitress position so she could learn about the restaurant business. "I answered a waitress ad with a 10-2 shift."
While undergoing her formative training as a waitress, she discovered a small cafe for sale on the "other side of Sterling Road" where the current restaurant is located. It was a turn-key purchase, meaning that it was already furnished with chairs, tables and other restaurant equipment. For $3,000, Vita and Jay Totta purchased the cafe that consisted of just seven stools, four booths and a couple tables in 1963.
"Nobody knew what pizza was back then," says Vita when she opened her first restaurant. Far from the staple it is nowadays, the word 'pizza' was foreign to Missourians 50 years ago. She even added that it had a very slow reception when it was first introduced.
At the time, Vita thought pizza and beer would go great together. So one night, she and her husband visited a restaurant down the road on U.S. 40 called The Bamboo Hut to get an idea of how much a beer cost.
"We didn't know how much we should charge for beer so we wanted to find out by going to a place that served it." Once the Tottas arrived, one of their restaurant's regular customers paid for their beer. They eventually decided to charge 35 cents for the drink.
Interstate 70 was in the midst of expanding from Van Brunt Road in Kansas City to Eastern Jackson County. Vita says road workers regularly came for breakfast and lunch and later brought their families with them for dinner. They served regular cafe food such as hot beef sandwiches, along with the pizza. Eventually Vita introduced more Italian cuisine that came from her mother's or family's recipes, notably lasagna.
"Customers would pronounce it 'la-zanga,'' smiled Vita. As time progressed, word got around about this cafe that featured Italian cuisine. Vita at one point overheard, "I heard the Italian is really good over there." People from all over the metropolitan area came to try. Business boomed.
Over the years the small cafe outgrew its limited capacity. In 1966, they relocated to their second location a couple blocks farther west. Although it was a little bigger, the restaurant soon outgrew it, too.
Luckily, or by destiny, Vita's husband was an architect, and he designed V's current location. Jay was employed with the architectural firm, Kivett and Myers, known for designing the Truman Sports Complex. In 1971, the Tottas purchased property just off of U.S. 40 and Sterling Road to begin construction. A year later, it opened, with an expanded kitchen and 150 seating capacity. Over the next decades it has been added to and modified to accommodate the demand and additional catering services.
All in the family
"I mowed lawns, shoveled snow in the winter and even made beer can lights," says Greg Hunsucker. "Then, I see my brother loving his job at V's."
Greg's older brother began working at the restaurant in April 1972. Greg tried to get a job at the popular restaurant himself, but was "way too young." Finally at the end of the year, a bus boy did not show up for his shift and Momma V gave young Greg the position.
For the next seven months, Greg cleaned tables and collected plates. But one particular shift he got "chewed out by a fat lady" and was about to walk out. That is, until Vita reassigned him to a cooking position.
"She believed that if you didn't work in one area, that you should try another department," Hunsucker said. "But not under any circumstance you should give up and quit."
Given that opportunity, Greg knew by age 16 he wanted a culinary vocation. And so for the following eight years, he worked his way up to become general manager of V's Restaurant in 1981. At that same time, another pivotal moment occurred in Hunsucker's life: He met his wife, Mary, who happened to be Vita's daughter.
"I was the kitchen manager at the time and she was the bar manager," he recalled. "Some of my old girlfriends worked as cocktail waitresses there and even her old boyfriends worked in the restaurant, too. They would notice how we acted around each other and say, 'the writing is on the wall."
The two V's managers eventually got married and recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.
Today and beyond
Greg continued to work at V's Restaurant and became owner of the place after he was given the opportunity by Vita to invest.
He credits the simple ingredients of "providing outstanding food and service in a clean environment" that made V's a recipe for success. Plus the strong Totta bond rubs off on each patron who walks into V's.
"You're like family here," he adds. "My job is like hosting a dinner party every day for my family and friends."
As for the future, Greg says the Totta tradition continues, with the family still involved in the restaurant's operations. The new generation is beginning to take helm; Greg's son recently became manager and others are in the office doing paperwork as well. V's has even kept up with the times by incorporating the latest dietary trends in their menu, including gluten-free pasta or whole wheat pizza.
However, things haven't completely changed. Their famous brunch is still served every Sunday (although Jay once remarked "that's the only day where I don't have to worry about if everyone shows up" about being open seven days a week) and other staples, like the osso buco – braised veal shanks. A particular customer once said to them that he traveled to every continent, even the Old Country (Italy), and sampled the dish. He told Vita that V's still has the best osso buco in the world.
"It's great when people who haven't been here for over 20 years come back and say, 'It's just the way I remembered it,'" said Greg.
"I don't know if I could have done this without my family," says Vita about her restaurant's legacy.
What's in store is to simply carry on the tradition of being incredibly hospitable and give young people the chance to learn the value of hard work. "Even the ones that have purple hair or nose rings today," Vita laughs.
If you ever get the chance to dine at V's Restaurant in Independence, you'll be greeted by a smiling face, immediately be taken in by the aromas of the fresh food and if you're old enough to remember, the saxophone solo from Billy Joel's "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" may come to mind.
But just remember, when you visit V's, you're experiencing Vita Totta's life.