A Cocktail With Vincenzo Betulia
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
WAVE creative sits down with the legendary chef behind local favorites Osteria Tulia, The French and Bar Tulia.
It's ten minutes into our conversation with Vincenzo Betulia, and we’re discussing a certain black and white photo. “If you think it’s awesome, good for you. If you think it’s offensive, good for you,” the owner of Osteria Tulia, Bar Tulia and The French says with a laugh. If you’ve been to Bar Tulia, you’ve probably noticed the bar is dotted with black and white photographs that are most definitely not your typical stock images. Each photo marries the old world with the new in an edgy way, and Betulia can tell us the story behind every hand-picked image at the drop of a hat. The photos are like Bar Tulia itself, in that they simply must elicit a response, a remark or an opinion.
Betulia even goes on to describe how a few guests have attempted to “liberate” the art, but notes this doesn’t mean he’ll be censoring the decor any time soon.
“In Europe, it’s not taboo.
You can take it for
what it is.”
While the bar, the osteria and The French are all different conceptually, there is something uniquely Betulia about all of them. There’s the Parisian joie de vivre of The French, with its tall facade and Haussmann flair. There’s the glowing Osteria Tulia, filled from afternoon to night with the sounds of guests clinking wine glasses and sharing traditional Italian plates. Then there’s Bar Tulia, packed to capacity nightly and evocative of a neighborhood spot we’d find in Soho with its edgy and effortlessly cool energy. The bar centers around craft cocktails with names almost as clever as the drinks themselves. Oh, and it has food, too (just order the Parma pizza and thank us later). Betulia tells us the menu revolves around the cocktails, and that the talented bartenders are the ones truly running the show.
He’s not kidding about that last part, either. The bar doesn’t take reservations (there’s not a phone, so don’t even try), and you won’t see the employees in uniforms either. “Even the one thing I wanted them to wear were red chucks,” Betulia explains, showing us his own signature red shoes. “They stopped wearing them,” he shrugs good-naturedly, explaining how he actually encourages this sense of individuality. And no, the “man buns” many of the bartenders are sporting are not part of any sort of dress code either (we had to ask). The bartenders even choose their own music, resulting in an eclectic soundtrack that somehow works flawlessly. It's easy to see Betulia’s concepts have elevated the dining scene in Naples. When asked how, exactly, the midwesterner with strong Sicilian roots got to Naples, he launches into a rather animated story.
It includes a girlfriend, a first visit to Fifth Avenue with her family and an eventual broken-off engagement that sent him in search of a change of scenery. This timely move to Naples nearly 20 years ago sent Betulia in the exact opposite direction of his Chicago life. “The goal was to get out of a behemoth 350-seat restaurant,” he explains, gesturing around the intimate bar. It’s only 4:15pm, and the place is already filling with people. There’s something unique about the crowd at the bar, too. It’s not uncommon to see guests of all ages squeezing into the cozy space. Betulia has created a concept that embraces the community, welcoming anyone and everyone ready to have a good time. We’ve seen this phenomenon ourselves. On any given Saturday night, you can see the bar catering to every age group, as 80-year-old regulars jovially brush elbows with guests in their twenties. Just like those bartender-curated playlists, it’s a little eclectic, but somehow just works.
Ever the gracious host, Betulia offers us a menu and suggests we sample a craft cocktail (hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere). We choose the Basil Advice, a grapefruit and Aperol concoction, and at Betulia’s suggestion, the Nonna’s Garden, a new addition to the menu that combines Barrhill Aged Gin with fresh strawberry and oregano. It’s our new go-to, and we don’t even like gin.
Our conversation shifts to the more technical side of the business. Betulia details his gratitude for his business partner, who approached him to create his own concept while he was still chef over at Campiello. When he bought the building, what is now the bar was, wait for it, a real estate office.
Now, the bar and the osteria next door look like they were built into the landscape, outfitted with Chicago brick reclaimed from a 1940s firehouse and wood from a dilapidated north Florida barn (its picture is over in the osteria) and of course, our favorite black and white photos. It figures that someone who takes the time to make his own cheeses, sausage, salumi and pasta (his parents help with this last part via a tiny pasta-making room upstairs) would take just as much care in how his space looks.
And as for his sense of work-life balance? “You’re asking the wrong person.” But, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m a hands-on owner,” Betulia begins. “I’m the visionary and I’m tossing pasta and signing paychecks” (we love the visual of Betulia back in the kitchen of the osteria, swirling a pan of cacio e pepe with one hand while simultaneously attending to W-2s with the other). Betulia uses this approach to connect with his customers as well, especially the locals. “My restaurants are not a democracy,” he grins. “We take care of our regulars.” He recounts running a “frosé” from The French across the street to Osteria Tulia to hand-deliver to one customer in particular, and he readily admits he’ll send a complimentary drink to someone he recognizes from the osteria at one of his other restaurants.
This hands-on approach certainly keeps Betulia occupied on the business side of the arrangement, and he’s not here to sugarcoat the truth about the restaurant industry. “Four out of five restaurants fail,” he explains. “A lot of people get involved because they think it’s easy.” When you enter a restaurant like Betulia’s, you only see people laughing, celebrating and sharing. “Behind the scenes, it’s a very thin margin,” Betulia says of the industry itself. “It’s physically demanding. It’s mentally demanding.” He’s not shy in telling us this business will chew you up and spit you out if you aren’t ready to put in everything you have.
Despite this, he totally lights up when the conversation returns the heart and soul of his restaurants: the food. While his work-life balance may be out the window, his owner-chef balance is securely intact. When asked how he crafted the menu for the osteria, he simply says: “this is what I eat. So now, you’re eating it too” (and we’re more than happy to do so).
By this, he means the menu stems directly from his Sicilian heritage, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a standout in a city full of Italian concepts. You won’t find any pseudo-Italian-American dishes at Osteria Tulia (sorry folks, no “bottomless breadsticks” or “never ending pasta bowl” here), and you won’t find him playing food scientist with foams and mists (or any type of molecular gastronomy for that matter). What makes Betulia’s food different is an awareness of real Italian food that simply translates as authentic and delicious.
This in no way means he isn’t using these traditional principles to shake things up. For example, at Osteria Tulia, he’s nixed butter with bread in favor of a Sicilian Caponata, a deliciously brine-y eggplant topping that sparks the appetite. “At first, people were like 'what is this?',” Betulia laughs. “These are tried and true dishes. For me, it’s very rustic, it’s all about simplicity.”
Part of this authenticity is using the Italian principle of cooking with indigenous ingredients. Betulia’s connection to the community goes far beyond his customers, and he’s quick to tell us his ingredients come from native sources. Local farmers are part of Betulia’s daily routine, and he doesn’t think twice about the local fisherman who will “show up in the back with a body bag of fresh fish on ice.” While it would be easier to get everything from a national vendor, that’s simply not the way Betulia rolls, and it’s just one more example of the care he takes in tying the business to the community.
What’s next for Betulia? Let’s just say he has some major ideas for his brand. “For me, I get excited wanting to grow,” Betulia explains. He’s thrilled about a shift in demographic in the area, and recognizes Naples is only getting younger. The past six years have given him confidence in his concepts, in his food, in his creative vision. He’s ready to use that confidence to keep expanding in a way that grows the culture of the town in a really cool way. “I think I’ve made my mark,” he says about his impact on the Naples culinary scene. We think it’s only just the beginning. Is anyone else suddenly hungry for some homemade pasta?
Favorite Thing About Naples? A sense of community
Most Popular Dish at The French? Steak frites
Something We'll Never See on One of Your Menus? Any animal that creeps me out!
Most Popular Dish at Osteria Tulia & Bar Tulia? Tortelloni pasta and the basil advice cocktail
What's Your Favorite Part About Being a Chef? Bringing back a memory through food
Advice For People Who Hate Cooking? Come to eat at one of my restaurants!