May 30, 2019:
By Ann Maloney, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
The mood was joyful on Tuesday (May 28) night inside Gio’s Villa Vancheri in Mandeville, where owners Giovanni and Yoko Vancheri hosted a dinner celebrating the restaurant’s victory on the Italian reality TV show, “Little Big Italy.”
The premise of “Little Big Italy” is this: Italian restauranteur Francesco Panella meets with three Italians now living in cities around the world. He and the expats visits three restaurants that serve Italian food, tasting three dishes. At the end of each meal, the diners have up to five tokens to award for each plate of food served. Panella has one more vote, “the Italian vote.”
“Little Big Italy” came to town during Carnival season this year, stopping for meals at chef Andrea Apuzzo at Andrea’s Restaurant in Metairie first, followed by Gio’s Villa Vancheri in Mandeville and finally sampling fare by chef Samantha Castagnetti at The Italian Barrel in the French Quarter.
After minor dust-ups at each location – the kind of stressors we’ve come to expect from reality TV, such as burned oil, delays in service and gummy-looking polenta — the show awarded its “Little Big Italy” title to Gio’s Villa Vancheri.
“I competed against two great chefs,” said Vancheri, who said he eats at both of the other restaurants. “It was just my lucky day.”
Each of the Italian immigrants on the show serves as a champion of one of the featured restaurants – and does not vote on the dishes when at that restaurant.
Vancheri’s champion was Maria Bertucci Compagno, who came to the United States from Ustica 68 years ago and was an owner of Compagno’s restaurant, the family-owned business that stood at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Fern from 1929 to 1998.
Do you remember Compagno’s? A lost New Orleans restaurant
Compagno’s daughter Angela first alerted her mother, who is retired and living in Mandeville, to Vancheri’s, telling her mother that she had found a spot that cooks “real Sicilian food.”
Her mother not only agreed, but became fast friends with the chef and owner, who hails from Caltanissetta, Sicily.
Compagno may have discovered a second career as a foil on reality TV shows with her grimaces and raised eyebrows that garnered laughs, gasps and applause from the dinner guests.
“She stole the show,” Vancheri said before the screening. “My niece called me and said I want to meet this Signorina Compagno.”
The purpose of “Little Big Italy,” which aired Sunday in Italy, is to find places around the world where one can eat authentic Italian food. The show has or will visit Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago de Chile, Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago and Toronto this season. The shows are available for viewing at it.dplay.com.
On Tuesday night, Compagno brought dessert of homemade coconut cake and assorted Italian cookies that followed Vancheri’s meal of thin-as-paper eggplant slices in a fresh-from-the-garden marinara sauce and tender osso bucco with a delicate broth accented by a bit of orange zest.
As “Little Big Italy” ran on, both Compagno and Vancheri helped the diners who did not speak Italian follow along, narrating and explaining as the show progressed.
Vancheri was interviewed by an Italian newspaper after the show. He said his phone has been ringing since the New Orleans-themed program aired, and he’s picked up many Italian Facebook friends, too.
“It’s great for tourism for New Orleans,” he said, adding that many people have messaged him telling him that they didn’t know New Orleans was so beautiful and asking if they can come by when they come to visit.
“I never had so many people calling, people I don’t know and friends I haven’t seen for 40 years,” he said.
Vancheri has been in the restaurant business for decades, living and working in England, Toronto and Las Vegas, where he worked at Caesar’s Palace, before opening two restaurants there. He moved to Japan, where he met his wife and worked with Toyota VIPs until the couple decided to move back to the United States.
“We came back because the kids were growing up and we wanted to give them a Western education,” he said. He considered going back to Las Vegas, but then he stopped in Mandeville to visit a childhood friend.
“I loved it,” he said. “I checked the schools. The schools were fantastic and I realized Tulane was in New Orleans and that’s a place I always wanted to send my kids. The rest is history.”
In 2007, Vancheri and Yoko bought the restaurant building that sits across from the trailhead entrance in Mandeville and have enjoyed running the restaurant on word-of-mouth business.
Over the years, the chef said he has won many plaques, cups and medals, so when the call came from “Little Big Italy,” he almost said no because even though he runs a restaurant full time he considers himself “retired.”
“I opened this place because I made a promise to my poppa that I’d go back to my roots and do real Italian food and cook for family and friends,” he said, noting he promised it would carry the family’s name.
“I remembered that promise,” he said. “I said maybe he sent them to me to be recognized by the Italian community back in Italy. So I did it. And, it was a great, great feeling to win because of my poppa.”
Full disclosure: I heard about this Italian TV program from Maria Compagno. My family and the Compagno family have been friends for years.