A rambunctious crowd gathers at Vesta Trattoria and Wine Bar in the form of about ten rollerblading forty-somethings, who, along with their bike shorts, have taken over the front of the restaurant, drowning out the music and the possibility of a soothing conversation about wine on tap and childhood memories. Fortunately (perhaps) the rest of the post Christmas season patrons don’t seem to mind. Nobody has gotten up for a while, choosing instead to ratchet up the volume and their bill. Midafternoon is the time where Giuseppe “Joe” Falco is looking to close the place down for a while so that his crew can turn over their lunch menu to dinner. “You never know what can happen next in this business,” he bemuses. “It’s never busy at this time of day.”
Joe’s kindergarten friend and partner Leonardo “Leo” Sacco is braving the noise and a bad cold, hoarsely saying, “I was very proud of what we did the day we opened Vesta.” He reveals that, while typing up the first menus in the kitchen, he “cried back there and told Joe that ‘No matter what happens, whether we fail or not, we’ve already succeeded.’” Joe reminds him, “Then I said ‘Stop being a bitch.’”
Since that day in 2008 substantial success and notoriety have followed in bringing some of the best locally grown food to Astoria where the tandem grew up and fantasized about going into business together. Joe and Leo were classmates through high school, only parting when it was time for college. Foreseeing his destiny more clearly, Joe studied restaurant management and the culinary arts, while Leo went to school for business, later settling for an IT job where he would stay for a decade. “There was probably a year when I was pursuing my career and working seventy hours a week in the restaurant business where we wouldn’t speak to each other for about three months at a time,” Joe explains. “Leo was super involved in his career too, but we’d pick up the phone eventually and it was like we were still talking every day.” Married with twin girls on the way, it was during one of those calls that Leo begged Joe to follow through with their teenaged dream. “I told Joe, ‘I’m sick and tired of my job. I have the money saved. Are you ready to do something?’ It took us about a year to find Vesta’s location, but we started our little corporation and kept ourselves motivated.” Trying not to overthink things and subject themselves to poor decisions that didn’t match their intuition, the guys scouted spots, often asking questions of contractors and real estate agents that made it clear they had no idea what they were doing. Joe points out though that he and Leo were still being “proactive,” “taking proper steps” and putting themselves into “learning situations.”
Both sons of immigrants, with Joe’s parents hailing from Sicily and Leo’s having arrived from Uruguay and Honduras, they set out to found an Italian restaurant with a neighborhood feel, something they felt Astoria desperately needed. Joe, the more chatty of the two, says, “Growing up, my father knew the butcher, the produce store owner, the tailor, everyone. That’s what a community is about. Tourists come into the city now and they see Starbucks all over and supermarkets. We wanted to have a place where people could come in and feel comfortable and not just have a good meal, but be friendly with the people who worked here, ask if they could leave their keys here for their roommate, ask if they could borrow some lemons, which happens more than you’d think.” Leo concurs, easily resisting any inclination towards elaboration.
Expansion in the form of Mexican fusion outlet Pachanga Patterson on 31st avenue and 33rd street came three years later. Some thirteen Queens-sized blocks away from the rustic, wooded Vesta, it has an echoed homely atmosphere, featuring dishes with all-natural, local ingredients cooked up by the same chef, Michelle Vito, a seasoned veteran of the New York restaurant scene, having worked in the noteworthy Monkey Bar and River Cafe. However, Pachanga Patterson’s appearance, which boasts a skeleton head donning a top hat and dangling Christmas lights that, though tasteful in context, could’ve been lifted off a shelf in a 99-cent store, is more elaborate and colorful, with the guys attracting walk-in customers, who elude the off-the-beaten-path home base. Despite Vesta’s location in western Astoria, ensconced among bodegas, car tire shops and bus stops on 21st street, Joe and Leo were quick to find capital to reinvest, having done quadruple the business they’d anticipated. “Unfortunately, I come from a background where I like feeling uncomfortable,” admits Joe. “If I’m in a situation and I know what will come tomorrow, I’m unhappy. And I generally tend to sabotage things.” Pachanga Patterson was the incarnation of Joe’s drive to constantly challenge himself. Leo was just along for the ride, crunching the numbers. “I’m always saying, ‘We can’t afford it. We can’t afford it,’” remarks Leo with Joe adding, “He knows exactly where every penny goes and he’s very cheap.” “No,” retorts Leo with a smile, “I’m thrifty.” Leo does admit that when some time passes after a proposition from Joe, they always seem to figure it out. For example, prior to opening, Vesta’s wine on tap was researched by Joe and promptly shot down by Leo as too pricey and risky. “Now everybody has it,” Joe proclaims in victory.
Leo’s perspective on their compatibility is hardly disputed by his counterpart though. “I don’t know how we stayed friends,” Leo offers with a small chuckle. “He was always picking on me, stuffing me into lockers.” Quickly chiming in, Joe says that was true, but it was similar likes, upbringing, and goals that kept them together, adding, “Leo is also incredibly hard working.” Then, humbly, Leo validates his role: “I bring stability. I’m a lot more even-keel. Joe can be high-strung at times.” Assertively and playfully, Joe submits: “The reason we’ve been so successful at having a great friendship and still owning businesses together is Leo loves the money more than I do; you can write that down,” prompting a burst of laughter from Leo, but not a denial.
Equal parts complimentary and divergent, their relationship, like the restaurant business of late, is obviously not without its snags. “Leo is incapable of maintaining the friendship because all he wants to talk about is the business,” insists Joe with Leo smirking and nodding. “My fault,” apologizes Leo. “But I’m trying. Joe has more experience than I do,” and as if to disperse some of the blame, Leo indicates that lately they’ve been talking about future business ventures, both recognizing the need to “keep pushing forward” and ignore the comfort of complacency.
Joe and Leo know that whatever new restaurants they open, Astoria will be the beneficiary, hoping that they can proudly continue to be a part of the booming area and provide the neighborhood with “everything it needs,” especially that coveted sense of community. But Leo recalls, “It’s a very stressful process. You’d think you’d learn your lesson after opening up the first restaurant; the second one was worse.” “It sounds crazy Leo,” Joe, typically, counters, “but the more restaurants you have, the easier it is because when one is struggling, the other can help it out.”