1 of 2
Photo by Kristin Lewis
2 of 2
Photo by Kristin Lewis
First came the espresso maker.
A hatless Ed Vasaio, with a trim beard but little gray despite the 20 years it's been since he opened Mamma ‘Zu, looks around his new restaurant, Dinamo. The propeller in the front window spins lazily.
"We wanted an espresso bar, [and] the [Victoria Arduino] espresso machine was key. We wanted it sort of like the grand cafés of Europe … the time when the coffee machine was invented," says Vasaio.
The large, opulent gilt mirrors, the black-and-white tiled floor and the painstakingly applied Venetian plaster all reflect an earlier time, but it's Colortura artist Rob Womack's vivid reverse paintings on glass in red, black and white on the walls and as tabletops that jolt the casual diner into an era when futurism dominated Italian culture. Futurism was both a social and an artistic movement emphasizing newness and youth, as well as speed, mechanization and technology.
It's a tricky period to navigate, artistically, because futurism is inextricably tied to violence and the rise of fascism in Italy. "I had to think about it," Womack says, "One night I woke up in the middle of the night … and saw the word ‘futurismo' backwards." He decided to hang the image on the opposite wall from one of the gilt mirrors — and here he found the hook upon which to hang his design. "We could take a satirical point of view."
The dynamism of the interior also reflects partner and chef Brad Wein's food. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and each menu changes daily, depending upon what's fresh and available. Although most of the food hews to the principle (if not the ingredients) behind the Italian dishes that Wein and Vasaio have perfected, a few wildcards, like matzo ball soup and savory kugels are inspired by their third Dinamo partner, Mya Anitai, who grew up in a Jewish family from Cincinnati, by way of Virginia Beach.
"She was going to quit," Vasaio says of Anitai. "She was leaving Mamma ‘Zu's."
"I was at a crossroads," she adds and was considering graduate school after the dissolution of her band, VCR.
"[And] I wanted to keep her in the family," Vasaio says. When the old 821 Café space became available on West Cary Street, Anitai, Wein and Vasaio decided it was time to partner on a new project.
It's Anitai who's really the face of the restaurant. Although she works behind the scenes making pastries and pasta or as a prep cook, she's the one who greets you at the door or waits on your table, and it's her low-key, calm presence that suffuses the atmosphere at Dinamo. There isn't the din of Edo's or the press of Mamma ‘Zu's. "Since I could get a job at 14, I've worked in restaurants," Anitai says, adding, "I've always loved it."
"You have such ease in it," Vasaio points out.
"It's where I'm most comfortable," she replies.
Although the busy Dinamo doesn't take reservations ("We don't really have a phone," Vasaio says), you can walk around the neighborhood if there's a wait for table and get a text when it's ready.
"I was really nervous the day before the door opened," says Anitai. "But once the ball started rolling, it felt like everything had fallen into place — and will continue."