Spurs coach/noted foodie Gregg Popovich pays tribute to Valter’s Osteria and late owner Valter Nassi

The founder of the restaurant that has been wildly popular among visiting NBA teams was remembered ahead of San Antonio’s preseason game against the Jazz in Salt Lake City on Tuesday night.

When you’re making NBA money, you can afford to eat anywhere you want.

And yet, when NBA teams come through Salt Lake City for a game against the Utah Jazz, so many have had just one dining spot in mind:

Valter’s Osteria.

While many of the hoops personnel who passed through its doors might not have been terribly familiar with the backstory of its namesake founder, Valter Nassi, the legacy of the celebrated restaurateur who died last month lives on in the world of professional basketball.

Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has gained a national reputation as something of a gourmand. He said before Tuesday night’s preseason game between the Jazz and Spurs in SLC that he’d heard of Nassi’s death both via media reports and also texts and calls from people that he’d dined with at Valter’s over the years, and was “very saddened” by it.

Then he shared some thoughts about the man behind the fine-dining institution.

“As we all know, he was a character — and a great manager, a great showman, great cook,” Popovich said. “In his little office, we’d watch NCAA games in the past during March [Madness]. So we have a special feeling for him. It’s really sad that he’s not there. He was sort of an iconic figure in the food milieu here in Salt Lake, so he’ll definitely be missed.”

Nassi, who worked in restaurants all over the world, came to Utah in 1996 to run Il Sansovino. He later became the name and face behind Cucina Toscana.

After his curious departure from that restaurant, he opened Valter’s Osteria, located at 173 W. 300 South.

Jeramy Lund, who was Nassi’s business partner, credits former Jazz All-Star guard Deron Williams, longtime NBA coach Don Nelson, and coach-turned-broadcaster P.J. Carlesimo with spreading the word around the league about Valter’s.

But while he said that they helped get the famous clientele in the door, he added that Nassi’s menu, his willingness to cater to their odd hours, and even his big personality, kept them coming back.

“One of the really unique things about Valter [was that it wasn’t just about] the athletes and the tons of movie stars that have been there — he genuinely loves people that like his food,” Lund said. “Even late at night, having the players in, and having them love his food after they put their best effort in on the court, it’s something he just really responded to. Part of Valter was, he was always on stage when he was in the restaurant, and NBA players would respond to that.”

While the Golden State Warriors famously bemoaned having to face the Jazz instead of the Los Angeles Clippers in a May 2017 playoff series because, “There’s no nightlife in Utah,” they have, for years now, found at least one particular local spot worth their time and money.

A 2015 road trip was documented by Bleacher Report, which included a postgame visit to Valter’s.

In January 2018, Warriors coach Steve Kerr, perhaps cognizant of lingering “nightlife”-related hard feelings, went above and beyond in praising the restaurant known for having an upscale, modern twist on traditional Italian dining.

“It’s amazing food; I told the [assistant] coaches last night that there is not a better restaurant in the country than Valter’s,” Kerr said ahead of that night’s Jazz-GSW game. “We let [Nassi] bring whatever he wants.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Valter Nassi at his restaurant, Valter's Osteria, in 2013.

In a 2022 story in The Athletic about the Warriors’ famous team dinners and their favorite restaurants on the road, Kerr once again invoked Valter’s.

“Always go there,” he said. “That was [former assistant coach Jarron Collins’] spot, he used to go there as a player when he played for the Jazz. Excellent Italian food; if you didn’t know it, you’d think you were in New York City or Chicago.”

The restaurant is not merely popular among coaches and players, though.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Breen also declared himself a devotee at the end of a March 2021 appearance on “Roundball Roundup,” the Utah Jazz’s in-house podcast.

He noted that he was turned on to the place by Carlesimo, and quickly came to love both the cuisine and the man responsible for it.

“There’s only one place I go to in Salt Lake City — Valter’s. It’s one of the best restaurants in the world,” Breen said. “… The atmosphere is wonderful, Valter is charming. And when you go to his restaurant, he makes you feel like you’re coming into his home. When you work the NBA circuit, you’re on the road all the time and staying in hotels, [so] to go to a restaurant where you almost feel like you’re getting a home-cooked meal, it’s a wonderful feeling — and he makes you feel that way every time you go in.

“And then the food is just off the charts,” he concluded. “… I have never walked out of there saying anything other than, ‘Oh, that was an awesome meal.’”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Photographs of then-Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell with restaurateur Valter Nassi bookend a photo of Nassi and actress Geena Davis, Oct. 10, 2022. Photographs of Nassi with celebrities and NBA players who dined at his retaurant are on display at the entrance to Valter's Osteria in Salt Lake City. Nassi, who served fine Italian food for more than two decades, died Sept. 20th.

Indeed, Valter’s is such an NBA institution that it even made it into the NBA’s “Health and Safety Guidelines” issued to teams during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus throughout the league, in December 2020, the NBA decreed that players, coaches and staff could only dine at somewhere other than their hotels if a restaurant provided outdoor dining, had a private indoor dining room, or had been formally approved by the league.

Valter’s — along with Red Iguana and Manoli’s — was one of only three SLC restaurants to get that NBA stamp of approval.

“The NBA worked with us to seek us out to make sure we got approved,” Lund said. “I was delayed a little bit getting back to them, and they sent somebody to the restaurant to sit down and wait for me to show up so that we could do the paperwork to make sure it happened. That was a high point for me.”

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karabo Poppy's Utah Jazz mural is on the side of Valter's Osteria, 173 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.