Strictly Relative
Buona Vita celebrates
the bond that is Family

Why not go for it? Sitting in a restaurant in Italy, Matthew Frommeyer was just graduated from high school and traveling with his older brother, Joseph, when they hatched the plan that would result in Buona Vita Pizzeria.

Ah, the good life. Buona vita.

"We'd always wanted to open up a restaurant and we decided to try it," Matthew says.

Whose idea was it? "Both of ours," they'll tell you separately.

Over pizza and a few glasses of wine, they chose the family name Buona Vita and decided to jump into the restaurant business, which has a failure rate of 60 percent.

Joseph had just graduated from college and was planning to open a pizzeria. Matthew was headed to culinary school. They put the ideas together, invested two years of planning, preparation and details, and opened a place in the river city of Dayton.

They looked at other cities and other sites, but liked the price and the energy of Dayton, Matthew says.

That was 2008. Now they are regularly filling the tables in a former bank building on Sixth Street (yes, there is a table in the vault) and launching a new menu to make the traditional family recipes their own, with some changes and some twists. Pizza with caramelized onions and goat cheese. Nutella pizza with espresso crust. Those kinds of twists.

Joseph handles the front of the house, the bar and the restaurant. Matthew handles the kitchen with its prized stone oven. The temperature has to be a perfect 600 degrees to bring out the flavors.

After four years in business, there is change afoot, but not for change's sake. Matthew explains, "We've built a decent reputation on recipes that work." But there's still room for innovation. Changes in the Caesar salad dressing have made it his own. He runs specials during the week to gauge interest in new dishes and a recent test of homemade pasta was a sellout. Not everything has "been run through the family gauntlet," he says, but it's clear that change comes with a full measure of respect for the traditions of the family kitchen.

"He's becoming a fabulous chef," Joseph says of his brother. "I tell everyone, I'm riding his coattails now."

Under Watchful Eyes

The restaurant is a tribute to family, decorated with scores of family photos assembled by Joseph and mom Gail Frommeyer from stacks of photo albums. It speaks to memories of Sunday dinner with family "” lots of family. Memories of 20 people in the basement stuffing homemade sausage into casings, cooking with their nonna, and enjoying the time together. Memories are prefaced with "ever since I can remember"¢"

Through the stories that his mom and uncles tell of those whose photographs hang on the walls, Joseph says, he feels he knows them, even the ones who died long before he remembers. "It affects me every day."

Recipes originate from Fuscaldo, the town in southern Italy that is the birthplace of their family, the Bonavitas.

Gelato made by their brother Nick is on the menu. Bread made by their brother Mark of Blue Oven Bakery is on the menu.

Sister Michelle helped perfect the calzone recipes. "She's our oldest sister, second mother and calzone queen," Joseph says. All homemade, uncle Carmine's calzones include uncle Vincenzo's Cheese Calzone and Michelle's Cheese and Pepperoni. When brother Anthony, a fashion designer, helped with the T-shirts and logo, it brought all six siblings into the effort to build a business.

Love, Joy, Bit of Sugar

"My mom still comes down and bakes the cookies during the week. When we run out, it starts a riot," says Matthew. Pizzelle, Amaretti almond cookies, chocolate chip meringues and cannoli, according to the menu, are homemade by loving little Italian ladies "with love, joy and a little bit of sugar." Gail will be in the grocery store and be recognized by restaurant regulars, says Joseph. She's there every Friday, usually with a group of friends. "She can be our toughest critic, she keeps us on our toes," he laughs. "She thinks she's the boss and she is."

Nearly every menu item is named for a family member: Poppi's Pepperoni, Jeremy's Meat Pie, Isabella's Two Topper, Grandma Frommeyer's Salads. Ciccio's homemade salad dressings and Ciccio's sauces? That's Matthew, Joseph explains. The uncles thought young Matthew looked like a distant cousin Francesco and the nickname endures some 20 years later.

"I knew my family would come in once or twice but we've had overwhelming support from the family and they always bring friends," Joseph says.

Uncle Luigi, who is 93, and 82-year-old uncle Giuseppe are among the regulars. "It's funny, when we first started, they would come down and make sausage," says Joseph. Later there was a bit of a dustup when the restaurant went from traditional sausage links to patties on the sandwiches. It was easier to cook and it didn't cause a big squirting mess when you bite down into the layers of peppers and spaghetti sauce. But it's forgotten now.

"I hope they are proud of us," Joseph says. "I think they are proud of us. What choice do they have? Their faces and names are all over our menus and mugs!"

Warm and Friendly

Service is friendly and warm. You are greeted before you are in door. The waitress is patient when you change your order after a plate of fabulous food goes by, and everyone seems to know everyone. Joseph calls his regulars friends, not customers, and he says they come from as far away as West Chester. Friends tell friends and the business grows.

So, what about the dynamics of brother and brother. "It's fun, every day is different," says Matthew. "He likes to be more in the front of the house and I like the kitchen."

Joseph agrees. "He's my younger brother but he's my best friend. We have one good argument a week. Then it's over, gone, we don't hold grudges."

 
Dianne Gebhardt-French
writes about the newsmakers of Northern Kentucky.
Contact her at (513) 297-6209 or
dfrench@cincymagazine.com