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The legacy of a Utah culinary master

Food, passion and love are exactly what Valter Nassi brought to Salt Lake City and the legacy for which he will be remembered

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Valter Nassi, Salt Lake City’s consummate host.

Lee Benson

Last night Utah and food lovers everywhere lost a legend with the passing of Valter Nassi, a Tuscan chef and the proprietor of Valter’s Osteria, a renowned eatery in the heart of Salt Lake City. He died after a health battle, according to reports. He was 76.

After migrating from Monte San Savino, Italy, to New York, and then from New York to Salt Lake in the late 1990s, Nassi made a name for himself in the Utah food scene with his first restaurant Il Sovono, then Cucina Toscana, then finally Valter’s Osteria in 2013. This year Valter’s was named a semifinalist in the “outstanding hospitality” category of the nation’s premiere culinary recognition — the James Beard Awards.

More Pixar character than human, his shock of white hair, small-framed glasses and tidy sweaters added to his larger-than-life Italian cook persona. Patrons dined at Valter’s for the food, yes, but also for the chance to interact with the gregarious man bouncing from table to table, making recommendations and ensuring all meals met his impeccable standards.

The entrance to Valter’s is adorned with photos of Nassi and a litany of celebrities, perhaps most notably Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who once said, “There is not a better restaurant in the country than Valter’s.”

Nassi made a lasting impression on a national audience with his star turn in Season 1 of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” during a Met Gala-themed luncheon held in his restaurant.

The consummate pro, Nassi stood stone-faced in the background while the women argued over which of them was better friends with him. He then served the beloved lemon and honey dessert while the women called each other names.

“I’m sorry, Valter,” became a meme immediately after the episode aired.  

I recall going to Valter’s while two months pregnant. I was in a fairly antagonistic relationship with food at the time. But that’s not why I was there. I was there to see the icon in person, hoping to catch just a glimpse of the state’s most famous restaurant owner. I was delighted, then, when Nassi greeted me and my husband with the same “Buongiorno!” he would give longtime friends, and paraded us to our table.

I played it safe that night with a standard, albeit delicious pasta, but seated at the table next to us was an Italian man dining alone. Nassi greeted him with the same effulgent warmth he had greeted us, then the two conversed in Italian before Nassi disappeared into the back kitchen. He returned with a dish I’d never seen before — layers of pasta in a dark sauce. The diner took a single bite, grinned and excitedly declared something in Italian to Nassi, who bowed, disappeared again and returned with another dish that may or may not have been on the menu. This went on for the duration of our meal.

As rude as it is to stare, I couldn’t look away. I was watching a man doing what he was clearly born to do — share joy, art and love through his food. 

“Food is love. Passion. Period,” Nassi declares in a video on Valter’s website. 

Food, passion and love, are exactly what Nassi brought to Salt Lake City and the legacy for which he will be remembered.