Westport’s Via Sforza is built on community and great food

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Thirty years is a long time for any business, but in the risky restaurant business – where years matter more (like dog years) – it’s an impressive time. To last this long, the restaurant must be exceptional, consistent and appreciated by customers of all generations.

Via Sforza Trattoria in Westport is a rare restaurant that has evolved and succeeded over 30 years. Run by a family with an emphasis on quality and community, it celebrates its three decades this year.

“We are a destination for authentic Italian cuisine,” Mario Sforza told me. As we chatted in the enclosed, airy dining room, uniformed kitchen staff unloaded a truckload of supplies. Sforza had been shopping in New York’s wholesale markets that morning. “We are picky about certain things,” he shared, “and like to choose our own produce, cheese and fish.” Sforza, low-key with a charming smile and soothing voice, explained the restaurant’s long-term success.

“You have to appreciate your people,” he said. As he progressed, I realized he was talking about everyone: staff, customers, suppliers, as well as the community at large. He kept coming back to this idea as we talked.

Via Sforza in Westport is a rare restaurant that has flourished and evolved for 30 years.

Frank Whitman / For Connecticut Media Group

On a recent Saturday night at dinner, Marsha and I marveled at the abundant service staff: friendly, helpful, professional, and eager to please. “At first it was just family,” Sforza said. Now, when hiring, Sforza looks for people who will maintain that family atmosphere and “work for the clients.”

Chef Chris Malagise has been with the restaurant since it opened. He thinks of relaxing and has brought in George Campoverde to take over. You can see them working side by side in the open kitchen. They have been a team for 25 years, an unprecedented lifespan in the restaurant industry.

Prawns, mussels and swordfish were mixed with fresh fettuccine, peas, fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic at Via Sforza in Westport.

Prawns, mussels and swordfish were mixed with fresh fettuccine, peas, fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic at Via Sforza in Westport.

Frank Whitman / For Connecticut Media Group

The extensive menu goes well beyond the usual Italian restaurant offerings. The focus is on Puglia cuisine and the Sforzas’ hometown of Bari, located just above the heel of the boot on the Adriatic coast. Plenty of seafood in addition to homemade pasta, rarely seen veal, wood oven pizzas and a long list of daily specials make choosing a challenge. Marsha’s butterfly trout ($33) was generously dusted with toasted almonds and bathed in a light lemon herb sauce. Pasta del giorno included shrimp, mussels and swordfish ($27) tossed with fresh fettuccine, peas, fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic. Rustic round loaves and focaccia for the bread basket are baked daily in the brick oven. Wines by the glass include well-chosen regional Italian varieties, each authentic, true to type and reasonably priced.

As the restaurant filled up that evening, patrons seemed familiar and comfortable with the surroundings. Groups of four, six and even a birthday party of 12 all settled in for a relaxing meal. In the meantime, a steady stream of take-out customers opted for take-out dinner.

Sous Chef George Campoverde, Mario Sforza and Chef Chris Malagise create an authentic Italian dining destination at Via Sforza in Westport.

Sous Chef George Campoverde, Mario Sforza and Chef Chris Malagise create an authentic Italian dining destination at Via Sforza in Westport.

Frank Whitman / For Connecticut Media Group

Dino and Maria Sforza (Mario’s uncle and aunt) started Via Sforza in Norwalk as a mom and pop pizzeria. After 13 years they built the unique stone trattoria at 243 Post Road West in Westport. It has to be the most distinctive building in town, and that’s saying something. Dino designed the building with its stone exterior, barrel-vaulted ceilings, ocher walls, and scrollwork ironwork. It could easily be in an Italian village.

Mario began his restaurant career at age 13 in the European apprentice tradition. Working across Italy, he rose through the professional ranks to hold senior positions in fine restaurants and hotels. Her leadership style is collegial and collaborative, but make no mistake! He knows every job inside out. While talking about Via Sforza, Mario kept coming back to the same themes: the focus on customers, staff and quality; be a good neighbor to the community; enjoy people; and fairness. It’s easy to see how the restaurant has thrived through two generations.

Over the next 10 years, dozens of restaurants came and went to Westport following a trend, filling a need or fulfilling a dream. But in 2032, I bet the Via Sforza family will celebrate its 40th anniversary.


Frank Whitman writes a weekly food column called “No Bread Alone”. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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