• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

Buona sera, Solon

New restaurant brings Italy to Main Street
Angie and Aziz Longou have opened the Red Vespa Italian Restaurant in the heart of Solon. (Photo by Lori Lindner)

SOLON– There are many things to love about Italy: its wine, its warm people, its masterful historic artists, bold history and ancient architecture.
Its food.
The Red Vespa Italian Restaurant now brings some of those fine Italian qualities to the heart of downtown Solon.
Aziz and Angie Longou are the couple behind the venture, the long-anticipated eatery that opened Aug. 25. Aziz has many years of experience as a chef and restaurateur in the Corridor area.
“I started cooking in 1978, and I think I did a good job,” said Aziz.
Managing a French bakery in the Twin Cities for a friend taught Aziz much about bread making, dough and pastries. Other opportunities to manage different kitchens and eateries eventually led him to restaurant ownership, including Martini’s and Vito’s in Iowa City and Vito’s in Cedar Rapids.
But it was long a dream to open an Italian restaurant, and authenticity was key.
“I wanted to go authentic from top to bottom,” Aziz said.
To achieve that, Aziz traveled to New York City to become certified by the Associazion Pizzaiuli Napoletani (APN), an organization with a mission of passing down the centuries-old art and science of making traditional Neapolitan pizza. Red Vespa is the first restaurant in the state of Iowa to be APN certified.
To obtain certification, Aziz spent 10 days at the association’s New York-based pizza making school, learning to mix, knead and proof the dough, alongside Naples’ pizza maestro and APN president Roberto Caporusico.
“I have been making pizzas for five years in a wood-fired oven at home, so I thought I already knew a lot about making pizza,” said Aziz. “It was a rude awakening. I had a lot more to learn.”
As part of the APN certification, Aziz had to commit to using those specific techniques in his restaurant, as well as using only fine Italian flour and San Marzano tomatoes. House-made mozzarella cheese, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt top the other fresh, simple ingredients that make Red Vespa’s Neapolitan pizza a true taste of Italy.
“It’s a thin pizza, with few ingredients,” said Aziz. “It’s important that you balance the ingredients. If you use the right ingredients in balance, they speak.”
Starting with the right ingredients and traditional technique is only part of Red Vespa’s adherence to Italian tradition, though. Instrumental in the restaurant’s culinary masterpieces is the wood-fired Acunto Napoli oven, hand-crafted by the renowned Acunto family of craftsmen who have been building pizza ovens since 1892. The circular oven weighs 5,000 pounds, with an internal concrete floor and a domed ceiling comprising hand-cut refractory bricks.
The Longous ordered the custom oven from Acunto Napoli, and when it arrived more than 60 days later, it took a forklift, two pallet jacks and several strong men to get it through an opening broken into the wall. It took 12 days for Aziz to take the oven through its curing process, building and tending increasingly larger fires each day to remove the moisture from the interior so the concrete wouldn’t crack from sudden extreme temperatures.
Once cured, a fire is built each morning and fed fresh wood regularly to keep the oven between 850 and 1,000 degrees; a pizza cooks in 90 seconds.
“If you lowered the temperature, or used a regular oven, you wouldn’t get this,” said Aziz, pointing to the dark, delectable bubbles of crust that rise around the pizza’s edge. “This is the beauty about it, because every bite you take of this little dark spot is flavor.”
The Acunto oven, with its glossy red-and-white ceramic-tiled exterior, is a visual centerpiece in the midst of the restaurant’s chic décor that mixes urban and traditional touches, like the wall of exposed brick opposite a wall of pressed tin panels behind the modern, glass-shelved bar.
Local entrepreneur and craftsman Dick Schwab made the wood-topped tables using artful combinations of reclaimed and native Iowa woods.
Angie credits builder and designer Pat Barton for much of Red Vespa’s look.
“He is very talented. We’ve been working with him a long time, and everything he decided was another cool surprise,” said Angie.
But it’s not the novelty or the decorating that has already made Red Vespa a Corridor hot spot getting rave reviews.
The food is a journey in itself.
In addition to wood-fired pizza, with either classic Neapolitan red sauce or a rich white sauce, the menu stretches from starters, like an antipasto platter, to sumptuous dishes, like arancine alla Bolognese, bruschetta, vegetarian or prosciutto sandwiches, salads, pastas and burrata: a buttery, fresh Italian cheese.
Vegetables are locally-sourced, and the bread is made from the same dough as the pizza, baked with the same delicious wood-fired flavor. The full bar includes craft beer– Solon’s Big Grove Brewery drafts are available– as well as both red and white wine on tap.
Just two dessert options will fill anyone’s sweet tooth; salted butterscotch budino, which is a creamy Italian pudding, or warm cookies with cold milk.
“Oh, yeah,” was all Angie could say about the warm cookies.
The cookies may be enough to satisfy the child in everyone, but children who visit Red Vespa are treated to their own special indulgence; they can make their own pizzas at their tables.
“You should see them,” said Aziz. “They make excellent pizzas. Their pizzas are beautiful.”
The restaurant’s soft opening and grand opening events were very successful, Angie said, and every day since has remained busy. A Realtor by day, Angie greets guests at Red Vespa in the evenings. Even the owners and managers of Solon’s other downtown restaurants have been very supportive, she noted.
“It’s been great so far. The place has been full, and there are people who have already been here several times,” said Angie. “We just want people to come and enjoy.”
Find more information and a menu on the restaurant’s Facebook page at Red Vespa Solon.