Valter Nassi, the big-hearted Salt Lake City restaurateur who served up fine Italian food for more than two decades, has died.
Nassi died Tuesday, according to a tweet sent Wednesday morning by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. Neither Cox nor his predecessor, former Gov. Gary Herbert – who also tweeted his condolences on Wednesday – mentioned a cause of death. Nassi was 76.
Nassi was “a Utah icon” who “left his mark on everyone who met him or ate at Valter’s.” Cox tweeted.
Herbert, in his postnoted that Nassi was presented with the Governor’s Mansion Artist Award for Culinary Art, an honor bestowed upon him in 2006. Herbert praised Nassi’s eponymous restaurant, Valter’s Osteria, as the place to go to “enjoy great food and Valter’s outstanding personality. ”
In 2012, Nassi Valter’s Osteria opened at 173 W. 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City. The restaurant describes itself as “a modern twist on a Tuscan granary.” The menu features a simple bean soup, which Nassi thought was one of his best recipes, and a handmade lasagna, made using his mother’s meat sauce recipe.
“He really set the standard at Salt Lake. He’s a legend,” said Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. “He’s been at this for so long. … He was one of the most charismatic owners I know, really amazing. It really is a great loss for Utah and the restaurant community.”
In a statement, Derek Miller, President/CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, called Nassi “a mainstay of downtown Salt Lake City and helped create the culinary scene that exists today. Visiting Valter’s Osteria, guests are transported to another world, a place where you feel loved and cared for, a place where you feel at home. …People from all over the world know Utah because they know Valter. You know his name, his exuberance and his joie de vivre.”
From 2003 to 2012, Nassi was the face of Cucina Toscana, the Tuscan trattoria at 300 S. 300 West, across from Pioneer Park. Cucina Toscana was recognized as one of the first truly sophisticated Italian restaurants in Salt Lake City – and Nassi became known not only for his magic with food handling, but also for his warm, extravagant and always friendly presence.
Valter Nassi was born in 1946 in Monte San Savino, Italy, a small medieval village outside of Florence. He said his culinary training was rooted in his mother’s kitchen and his father’s work as a mushroom trader. His father, Nassi said, was “an incredibly good eater.”
Throughout his career, Nassi has traveled the world and worked in restaurants in London; Gstaad, Switzerland; Genoa, Italy; Nairobi, Kenya; and New York City.
In 1996, Nassi moved to Salt Lake City with his wife Phyllis and son Enrico. He was hired to run Il Sansovino, a new Italian restaurant in American Stores’ corporate headquarters, the massive skyscraper at Main Street and 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City. (The building is now called the Wells Fargo Center, and the space that used to house shops and restaurants now houses KUTV, Channel 2.)
Nassi said in a 2010 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that he fell in love with “my town in Salt Lake City” when he landed at the airport, walked through the terminal and marveled at dozens of families holding “Welcome Home” signs held up.
“I’ve lived in all parts of the world and I’ve never found anything so welcoming,” Nassi said. “I am in love with this beautiful city.”
Il Sansovino, named after his birthplace, was short-lived. It opened in Spring 1998 and closed in June 1999. But Nassi’s reputation as a good host and driver for Salt Lake City was just beginning.
In 2003, Nassi launched Cucina Toscana at the request of developer Ken Millo, who was converting the old Firestone building at 300 West and 300 South into a restaurant, retail, and residential building.
In 2010, Nassi was honored for his support of the city when he received the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Tourism Achievement Award.
Back then, Nassi predicted that Salt Lake City would take a giant leap in its culinary sophistication — a process many believe helped it move forward. “I may be exaggerating about my electricity for the city, but I don’t think I’m overdoing it,” he said.
“We’re becoming a culinary city,” Nassi said in 2010, citing the boost from the 2002 Winter Olympics and the restoration of downtown and the upcoming opening of the City Creek Center.
“Look how many restaurants have opened, how many young chefs are coming here. We need that,” he said. “Listen carefully. This city is ready to have a large number of tourists who come and say that we are good because we are good.”
When Cucina Toscana planned to add a quick service restaurant in 2012, Nassi announced that he was retiring from the restaurant. He didn’t stay out of business long when he began work on Valter’s Osteria a few blocks east that same year.
An illustrated book on Nassi’s philosophy of life and food, Valter of Salt Lake City: The Magic of the Table, was published in 2019. It was written by Nassi and author Elaine Bapis over the course of five years.
Earlier this year, Valter’s Osteria was a semi-finalist in the James Beard Awards for Outstanding Hospitality.
“Valter was the leading figure when it came to front-of-house restaurants,” Corigliano said. “I know we’ve had so many visitors from out of town, especially businesses, who wanted to bring their visitors to Valter’s because he has truly set the standard for fine dining in Utah.”
Nassi’s other claim to national fame is less prestigious. In 2020, Nassi opened the doors of Valter’s Osteria for Bravo’s reality show The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City as the location for a sumptuous luncheon hosted by former housewife Mary Cosby. The meal, chronicled in the season one episode “Ladies Who Lunch,” was intended to mend fences between the feuding women, but soon devolved into a screaming fight involving primarily Cosby and Jen Shah.
At one point, Cosby demanded silence, saying, “I don’t want that around Valter. … He’s really upset right now.” The camera then cut to Nassi, stony-faced and unflappable — an image that became the basis for the “Valter is upset” meme, a joke at odds with Nassi’s cheerful, welcoming personality .
Nassi is survived by his wife Phyllis Pettit Nassi and son Enrico Nassi.
Plans for memorial services have not yet been announced.
This article will be updated.