“We’re sisters from a different mother,” explains Carla Gambescia. She’s discussing her bond with Dawn Tyson-Silvera, the gifted chef at Gambescia’s unique restaurant, Via Vanti, in Mount Kisco, N.Y. At first glance, these women couldn’t be more different.
Gambescia has an impressive background as a Marketing Theoratician. One claim to fame is her history as part of the team that named Sun Chips and Frappacino, but she felt unfulfilled in the job. “I got tired of recommending things that never got realized. This is real. After I turned 50, it occurred to me that if you can visualize your dream, you have a responsibility to make it happen.”
In 1996, Gambescia began formulating Via Vanti. “It’s a term that I made up, to symbolize that this is the way to go. I didn’t actually open my restaurant until years later.” And the timing couldn’t have been worse. Via Vanti opened four days after the crash of Lehman Brothers; soon, even the affluent residents of Northern Westchester were feeling the pinch, and business was very slow.
“I’m the captain of this ship,” Gambescia continues. “I’m very careful about what I say, what I project to my team. There were days when we had no customers at all, and I didn’t see how we could survive. But rather than come into work depressed and discouraged, I’d say great, let’s use this gift of free time to create some outstanding milkshakes.” Gambescia credits the ultimate success of the restaurant not just to positive word of mouth, but also to divine intervention. “This is really dedicated to my mom and dad, who have passed away. I put their photo up on the wall here, and soon, we prospered.”
It’s very likely that this spiritual side of Gambescia is in a large part what connects her to Chef Tyson-Silvera. She is noteworthy in her profession as Executive Chef, not just because of her gender, but because of her lack of temperament. She exudes an air of calm, a serenity that transfers to her staff, and yes, even to her food. Part of what makes this lady so delightful is her sense of humor. When asked the difference between a cook and a chef, she says “Attitude!” without missing a beat. What sacrifices has she had to make, working long hours in a hot kitchen, to satisfy her customers? “Well,” she smiles, “I really miss wearing nail polish.”
Tyson-Silvera’s family was originally from the Caribbean; no doubt, this is where she gets much of her innate cooking flair. She grew up one of seven children, and her mom was a teacher. Even with their busy routine, the Tysons were known far and near for their fabulous meals. “Everyone came to our house to eat,” Dawn fondly remembers. One benefit of working with a female owner is that Gambescia is concerned for her chef’s well being, and will tell her to quit work, go home and get some rest when the hours get unreasonably long. “Luckily, my husband is very patient and understanding. We live in New Paltz, where there is a large community of chefs, so even my leisure time tends to be filled with talk about cooking.”
Both women consider the best part of their time at Via Vanti the long discussions they have about the food their serve, and coming up with new ideas to delight the palate. “Dawn is amazing,” Gambescia says enthusiastically. “Whatever I can think up, she can cook to perfection.”
None of this comraderie would really count if Via Vanti didn’t serve superb food. They considered their style “Improvisational Italian Cuisine,” and it is delicious. At Gambescia’s invitation, we tried the following foods. It was a memorable meal.
We began with the “Cleopatra.” As with all the offerings, Gambescia named this herself, and don’t hesitate to ask her the meaning of the monikers. This salad is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Field greens, hearts of palm, olives, caramelized onions, and goat cheese are complimented with chopped tomatoes, roasted red and yellow peppers, and topped with a tangy red pepper and olive vinaigrette.
Incidentally, Via Vanti is happy to do substitutions. My husband doesn’t eat goat cheese, so feta was used instead. As a diner herself, Gambescia confesses, “ I think of the menu items as suggestions,” and she’s glad to accommodate discerning guests, acknowledging that “there are lots of special order people in this area.”
For those who are thin crest pizza aficionados, this is Nirvana. The “Carla” is fresh mozzarella with a touch of mint pesto, topped with baby arugula, and red and yellow grape tomatoes. Order your own; sharing something this good is hard!
Chef Dawn and Gambescia are always adding new dishes to the mix; if you don’t see it on the menu yet, be sure to request “Pollo Fantastiche,” a chicken paillard with figs, feta, and hazelnuts, served on creamy polenta with a red grape sauce.
The gelato is in a class all by itself. 18 flavors are featured; nine are always available, nine change periodically. Why does it taste so much better than ice cream while it’s so much better for you? Gambescia knows the answer. “Part of my mission is to impart discovery. Gelato has half the fat of regular ice cream. Fat coats your taste buds. With less fat, you can taste the flavors better.”
There’s also a charitable benefit of this crowd pleaser. Gambescia has a contest; If your dog were an ice cream, what would the flavor be? The $20 entry fee goes to Guiding Eyes For The Blind, and her wall of costumed canines is a delight for young and old. When you buy gelato, if you contribute a quarter, Via Vanti will match the donation for this worthy cause.
There are also wine tasting dinners, and other special events. For those of us who love spotting celebrities, this is the place to see Richard Gere, who graciously admitted to Gambescia that her gelato is better than what he serves at his own restaurant; rock star Rob Thomas; and beautiful actress Lena Olin and her husband, director Lasse Hallstrom.
Not the least of its charms is the fact that Via Vanti has transformed the historic Mount Kisco Train Station with flags, furnishings, and decorations from “the old country,” so it’s easy to hop on the Harlem line in New York, and step off the train into the warmth of Italy. In the words of Carla Gambescia, “We want coming here to be a little vacation for people. Here, you can forget the stresses of the day; enjoy a full meal, a dessert, or just have a gelato. All are welcome!”
Via Vanti, 2 Kirby Plaza, at the Mount Kisco Train Station
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist, and an unrepentant Foodie. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics, Dance Critics Association, and National Book Critics Circle. firstname.lastname@example.org. michalljeffers.com