Valter Nassi, who brought high-end Italian dining to Utah, dies at 76

At his Valter’s Osteria and Cucina Toscana, Nassi ‘set the standard’ — and became a meme thanks to the ‘Real Housewives.’

Valter Nassi, the big-hearted Salt Lake City restaurateur who served 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 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 dined at Valter’s,” Cox tweeted.

Herbert, in his post, noted that Nassi was given the Governor’s Mansion Artist Award for culinary arts, an honor he received in 2006. Herbert praised Nassi’s namesake restaurant, Valter’s Osteria, as the place to “go for a great meal and Valter’s larger-than-life personality.”

In 2012, Nassi opened Valter’s Osteria at 173 W. 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City. The restaurant describes itself as “a modern twist on a Tuscan granary.” The menu includes a simple bean soup that Nassi considered one of his best recipes, and a handmade lasagna made with his mother’s meat sauce recipe.

“He really set the standard in Salt Lake. He’s a legend,” said Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. “He’s been around for so long. … He was one of the most charismatic owners that I know of, like, really, just unbelievable. It’s really a great loss for Utah and the restaurant scene.”

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Valter Nassi rides on a wagon during the Days of '47 Rodeo, at EnergySolutions Arena (now Vivint Smart Home Arena) in 2013.

In a statement, Derek Miller, president/CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, called Nassi “a piller of downtown Salt Lake City, and helped create the culinary scene that exists today. When visiting Valter’s Osteria, guests are transported to another world, a place where you feel loved and cared for, a place that feels like home. … People from all over the globe know Utah because they know Valter. They know his name, his exuberance, and his love of life.”

Valter’s Osteria remained opened on Wednesday in Nassi’s honor, according to his business partner, Jeremy Lund. “He was loathe to ever disappoint a guest and closing would hurt his soul,” Lund said.

On Wednesday afternoon, several people had left flowers outside of Valter’s Osteria, to pay tribute.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flowers outside of Valter's Osteria in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Valter Nassi, the big-hearted Salt Lake City restaurateur who served fine Italian food for more than two decades, has died.

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 considered one of Salt Lake City’s first truly sophisticated Italian restaurants — and Nassi became known not only for his magic with food, but for his warm, flamboyant, always-friendly presence.

Valter Nassi was born on July 2, 1946, in Monte San Savino, Italy, a small medieval village outside Florence. He said his culinary education was rooted in his mother’s kitchen and his father’s work as a mushroom merchant. His father, Nassi said, was “an incredibly good eater.”

Over his career, Nassi traveled the world, working in restaurants in London; Gstaad, Switzerland; Genoa, Italy; Nairobi, Kenya; and New York City.

In 1996, Nassi — with his wife, Phyllis, and son, Enrico — moved to Salt Lake City. He was hired to run Il Sansovino, a new Italian restaurant in the corporate headquarters of American Stores, 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 once held stores and restaurants is now home to KUTV, Channel 2.)

Nassi, in a 2010 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, said he fell in love with “my Salt Lake City” when he landed at the airport, walked through the terminal and marveled at the dozens of families holding “welcome home” signs.

“I have lived in every part of the world and never found something so welcoming like that,” Nassi said. “I’m in love with this beautiful city.”

Il Sansovino, named after the town of his birth, was short-lived. It opened in the spring of 1998, and closed in June of 1999. But Nassi’s reputation as a good host and a booster for Salt Lake City was just beginning.

In 2003, Nassi launched Cucina Toscana, at the request of developer Ken Millo, who was developing the old Firestone building at 300 West and 300 South into a dining, retail and residential building.

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Valter Nassi at his former restaurant, Cucina Toscana, in 2010.

In 2010, Nassi was honored for his support of the city when he received the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Tourism Achievement Award.

At the time, Nassi predicted Salt Lake City was about to make a huge leap in its food sophistication — a process many feel he helped move forward. “I perhaps exaggerate because of my electricity for the city, but I don’t believe I do too much,” he said.

“We are becoming a culinary city,” Nassi said in 2010, citing the boost from the Winter Olympics in 2002, plus the restoration of downtown and the impending opening of the City Creek Center.

“See how many restaurants have opened, how many young chefs are coming here. We need that,” he said. “Listen carefully. This town is ready to have a massive amount of tourists coming and saying we are good because we are good.”

When Cucina Toscana planned to add a quick-serve restaurant in 2012, Nassi announced he would retire from the restaurant. He didn’t stay out of the business long, as he started work on Valter’s Osteria, a couple of blocks east, the same year.

A coffee-table book about Nassi’s life and food philosophy, “Valter of Salt Lake City: The Magic of the Table,” was published in 2019. It was written over the course of five years by Nassi and author Elaine Bapis.

Early this year, Valter’s Osteria was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Awards, in the “outstanding hospitality” category.

“Valter was the premiere personality in terms of front-of-house house restaurants,” Corigliano said. “I know that we had so many visitors from out of town, companies particularly, would want to bring their visitors to Valter’s, because he really set the standard for high-end dining in Utah.”

Nassi’s other claim to national fame is less prestigious. In 2020, Nassi opened the doors of Valter’s Osteria to Bravo’s reality show “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” as the location for a lavish luncheon hosted by now-former Housewife Mary Cosby. The meal, chronicled in the first-season episode “Ladies Who Lunch,” was intended to mend fences among the feuding women, but soon devolved into a shouting match, mostly involving Cosby and Jen Shah.

(Bravo) Valter Nassi, center, prepares drinks for, from left to right, Jen Shah, Heather Gay, Lisa Barlow, Mary Cosby, Meredith Marks and Whitney Rose at Valter's Osteria, in the "Ladies Who Lunch" episode of the first season of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” Nassi's stone-faced reaction at one point in the episode inspired the "Valter is upset" meme, which was unlike his usual happy, welcoming personality.

At one point, Cosby demanded quiet, saying, “I don’t want this around Valter. … He’s very upset right now.” The camera then cut to Nassi, stone-faced and unflappable — an image that became the basis for the “Valter is upset” meme, a joke that was at odds with Nassi’s happy, welcoming personality.

Nassi is survived by his wife, Phyllis Pettit Nassi, and his son, Enrico Nassi.

A mass to celebrate Nassi’s life is planned for Thursday, Nov. 10, at 6 p.m., at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City. All are welcome.