Like Papa Vanelli used to make
By Meghan Holmes
Photographs by Marianne Todd
Just as lunch time begins at his downtown Tupelo restaurant, Voz Vanelli walks through the back door, navigating a few crates of produce on a hand truck. Before checking on things in the kitchen, he greets a pair of musicians performing an acoustic version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” outside the front door. “Those guys are great,” he comments, settling into a chair in the dining room. “They’re part of the vibe of the bistro, and we’re proud that they’re here.” In appearance, Vanelli is striking. With long hair and a beard, a flannel shirt and square black glasses, he could be the sound guy at your favorite local dive.
Vanelli is also a musician (and a writer, among other talents). He opened this third incarnation of Vanelli's Bistro, a restaurant his father started in 1975 using his mother's recipes. The downtown location is the newest version after a 2014 tornado destroyed the previous location on North Gloster Street. The cypress ceiling beams and a pair of lion heads are the only surviving remnants of the former location.
The space seats 40-60 and feels open and casual, with bright, animated menus and plenty of natural light. It’s a spot popular with business people or tourists looking for a quick lunch, offering whole pizza as well as pizza by the slice, salads, sandwiches and pasta. Popular pizzas include the Athenian, with a white sauce base, mozzarella, feta, Roma tomatoes and spinach, as well as the Grecian, with a house-made red sauce, mozzarella, feta, pepperoni, mushrooms and Greek peppers.
“Everybody eats the Greek salad when they come to Vanelli’s,“ says longtime employee Carrie Bradley. “Is it my favorite? I don’t have a favorite. I can eat all of it, and I’ve been here 40 years at both locations. If you come back I’m still gonna be here, and I’m still gonna be eating everything.”
The Greek salad is simple and satisfying with a mix of iceberg lettuce and red cabbage as well as bell peppers, tomatoes, celery, pepperoncini, olives, feta and vinaigrette. “We’re about nutrient-rich foods,” Vanelli says. “The red cabbage in your salad has six times the amount of nutrients the same amount of green cabbage would have. We had a group of English tourists come in yesterday, and they said it was 'smashing,'” he laughs.
On a tour through the kitchen, Vanelli samples two varieties of recently roasted chicken. “We’re experimenting with rubs, and this one’s not right yet,” he says, moving on to a giant cauldron bubbling with bone-in pieces of chicken. “We use this chicken as well as the broth in our tetrazzini, and we also boil our sausage. It cooks off the fat so that it doesn’t end up on the pizza.”
The kitchen also has a conveyer pizza oven, cranking out pies made using Papa’s original 1975 recipe where the dough spends a minimum of 12 hours rising before being baked. The restaurant also offers Greek specials, including homemade spanakopita and baklava, an ode to Papa Vanelli’s Greek heritage. “’Who’s going to buy pizza from a Greek named Kapenekas?’ That’s what dad said,” Vanelli continues. “His name was Demetrios Kapenekas, but he decided to name the restaurant Vanelli’s and went by Papa Vanelli after that.”
The restaurant’s original menu also included fresh pasta, which Vanelli soon plans to reintroduce alongside his current offerings of chicken tetrazzini and baked cheese ziti. “In the next couple of weeks we’re going to start serving fresh homemade pasta, and we’ll be the only restaurant in Tupelo,” he said. The machine sits on the counter next to the pizza oven, where the staff has already started practicing perfecting new doughs. “This is a different machine from what we had at our old building. We will have traditional doughs, as well as gluten free, spinach, beet and squid ink pastas. They only take two minutes to cook and then we’ll dress them lightly, with fresh sauces.”
Pasta sauces will include options like traditional meat and Alfredo as well as lighter fare like olive oil and chili oil varieties. “It will be very rustic and nutritious,” he says. “I want to serve the kind of food I like to eat, the food that I ate growing up.”
Vanelli’s new downtown location is next to some of Tupelo’s other popular eateries, including Park Heights and Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen. KOK features a small, hyperlocal, seasonal menu with healthy options like seared salmon salad and turkey tacos and less healthy indulgences, including house cut fries and a burger made from leftover cuts of high-end meet from Tupelo’s Neon Pig. (Also owned and operated by KOK owners).
Park Heights offers an elevated dinner menu featuring primarily steak and seafood items like red chili glazed salmon, maple and mustard halibut and pan seared Gulf grouper with a Cajun maque choux and crawfish etouffee. Lunch is more casual, with soup and sandwiches, including a fried oyster BLT, an open-faced BBQ shrimp poboy, and a steak sandwich with provolone, onion and a chimichurri mayonnaise.
Nearby Crave café offers coffee and desserts, as well as bike rentals for those ready to explore downtown Tupelo or spots along the Elvis Presley walking tour. An alley alongside Vanelli’s hosts Crave’s rental bicycles and serves as a shortcut between the two restaurants. “I love walking over to Crave,” Vanelli says. “That’s been a great addition to downtown.”
New and diverse businesses continue to move downtown as the area grows. “I opened my gallery in 2010, and I’ve seen so much development since then,” says Kim Caron, owner of Caron Gallery on Main Street. “It’s wonderful to see and adds to events like Tupelo’s Downtown Open House, which is in April this year.”
In addition to new restaurants and businesses, downtown Tupelo continues to radiate small town charm and reflect the area’s history. Vanelli’s 40 years of history began outside the city’s center, but now also contributes to downtown growth.
For Vanelli, it really is about the food. “I want people to enjoy the foods my family prepared, based on my grandmother’s recipes.”