Tucked away in the most unlikely location just outside Saugus center is a treasured spot for Italian fare. Sandwiched in between a bustling convenience store and a Dunkin Donuts, La Vita Mia’s unassuming exterior has kept the restaurant a hidden gem, and that’s just how the locals prefer it. Owner and Head Chef Gaetano “Danny” De Simone’s quaint eatery is packed with Italian flavor, which has landed La Vita Mia on the North Shore’s list of local hotspots. With family photos displayed tastefully on the walls and family recipes appearing on the menu, diners are continually reminded of the significance of the restaurant’s name: La Vita Mia — “my life.”
Danny De Simone never thought he would become a chef. In fact, the story of his life, in a sense, is quite nomadic. De Simone’s parents, Angelina Diloro and Mario De Simone, were born in Calore, a small, picturesque village on the outskirts of Avellino, in the heart of the Appennini. But in the 1960s, a time of widespread despair among the Italian population, the agricultural lifestyle in the Campania region did not offer the sustenance they needed to support their growing family; they were forced to do what many other Italians had to do at the time — emigrate. The De Simone clan found themselves moving from place to place in search of a better economic future. From Switzerland, where Gaetano (Danny) was born, back to their native Calore, they could not escape the struggling European economy. Mario and Angelina decided that the only viable option remaining was to travel across the Atlantic to the “land of the free.” So when Danny was just seven years old, they waved goodbye to their beautiful homeland to start a new life in Boston.
De Simone spent the majority of his upbringing living in East Boston, which was predominantly Italian at the time. He remembers well how his close friends, during his teenage years, would step into his father’s kitchen and smell the sweetness of his sauce wafting in the air of their home each Sunday. “My friends all wanted to have a taste,” De Simone stated during our chat over dinner. “It was just too good.”
As a young adult, De Simone found himself working for the airlines at Logan Airport. Although the job sufficed monetarily, he had always dreamt of becoming a chef and replicating his family’s traditional recipes, which he treasured so dearly. “Everyone laughed at me. They said I was crazy.” And just like that, De Simone enrolled himself in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts to pursue his true passion.
For the past eighteen years, La Vita Mia has thrived. Although originally at a former location, loyal patrons arrive in droves each night to enjoy everything the restaurant has to offer. But diners must arrive with an appetite; De Simone dishes out portions that are nearly triple the size of your typical dish of pasta. His inventiveness in the kitchen, however, is what sets him apart from many others. Everything that leaves his kitchen has been touched with a dose of innovation and playfulness. Gnocchi all’amatriciana, for example, which occasionally appears on La Vita Mia’s Specials list, is a creative twist on the classic bucatini all’amatriciana. With hearty potato dumplings simmering in a red wine and marinara sauce, a generous touch of salty cured pork belly pancetta, and expertly sautéed chicken atop it all, the meal is fit for a king. With a glass of house Chianti at a nice pour for the price, or perhaps, the Tuscan Pear Martini, a Vita Mia signature cocktail, patrons would leave neither hungry nor thirsty.
If you can’t find Danny De Simone at La Vita Mia, you can find him at the Vocational School in Wakefield teaching culinary courses to adults and children alike. Join the crowd at La Vita Mia, enjoy a savory Italian meal, and, perhaps, learn how to stir up your own Italian recipes.