One would not expect two experienced retail clothiers to dive headlong into a fine dining venture. And one would certainly not guess that they would select a former bank in which to do so. Four years ago when Bridgette and Harley Hooper opened Villagio del Vino, they definitely went beyond their comfort zone, challenged the Tyler dining status quo and brought The Rose City its first wine bar and imported Stefano Ferrara Italian pizza oven.
The Hoopers’ twin upscale clothing stores, Bridgette’s and Harley’s, are located in the La Piazza center, a premium shopping plaza opposite Tyler’s mainstream mall. When a vacancy provided the opportunity for a restaurant in the strip, they decided to take on the project themselves to ensure the concept and finishes would be consistent with the rest of the center. The reincarnation of the former bank space is stunning, and a perfect fit for their vision.
General manager and consultant Michèle Harris describes the venue as an Art Deco modern bistro. The sleek and stylish main dining area anchored by the glowing hearth of the traditional wood-fired pizza oven is a visual expression of Villagio del Vino dining experience. “Our cuisine is authentic Italian with a modern twist,” she explains. “We allow our staff to be creative with signature dishes and cocktails.”
The main dining area is strikingly contemporary, but still inviting and warm thanks to natural materials such as wood, leather and stone, and orange accents on tables, artwork and vaulted ceiling. The extensive wine collection is framed by a marble bar. Guests may choose from three patio areas, including one with a fireplace in space reclaimed from the former bank drive-through. The dining room seats up to 83, and patio areas hold 20-30 each.
Chef Michael Digby’s menu is fresh and organic, with sauces, meatballs and more all made in-house. Preference is given to local suppliers and farmers, but FreshPoint provides less common produce such as broccolini. Digby and his talented kitchen staff produce a broad range of traditional, specialty and dessert offerings. And of course, there’s the pizza: hand-tossed, wood-fired crusts topped with hand-crushed tomato sauce, Italian specialty meats and cheeses, and fresh herbs.
In keeping with current trends, Villagio del Vino will be introducing gluten-free and vegan options in January. They will also be offering micro mini-meals in conjunction with Lighten Up East Texas, a regional health effort to combat childhood and adult obesity.
Above and beyond great food, the restaurant aims to provide diners with a singular experience. “Villagio del Vino means ‘village of wine.’ We want our guests to peruse, through our menu, parts of Italy they might never get to visit. Sitting back and enjoying company face-to-face as they do in the Old World is a lost art. We don't rush people out the door as in some of American-style restaurants,” says Michèle.
Waitstaff and bartenders are trained to elevate service to the fine-dining standard that defines the restaurant. In particular, the front-of-house team learns the intermezzo, the offering of a sorbet between appetizer and main courses to cleanse the palate.
Villagio del Vino has many diners in the 40-70 age range but the bar and patio spaces are proving especially popular with young professionals. “Our back patio is a great hidden secret,” says Michèle. “A lot of young professionals sit out there. We have couches, tables and a fireplace—they like the upscale experience but in a more comfortable setting outside in front of the fire, which you can’t get in any other restaurant here in town. It reminds me a lot of the cafés I visited when I lived in Europe.”
Presently Villagio del Vino is closed Sundays, which allows it to be reserved that day for special events and parties.The beautiful indoor space plus the intimate outdoor areas make it ideal for gatherings of any size. That means that potentially the kitchen, and some staff, run all week.
“One of our operational challenges is the sheer demand on our kitchen. For its compact size it’s extremely effective. We are pushing out a lot—and it’s always hot and tasty. Chef Michael and his culinary team do awesome work every day,” says Michèle. In addition to daily service and catering, they contribute to community efforts including Boys and Girls Club, the Mentoring Alliance, their Junior Chef program, and ASPCA.
Another team member Michèle praises highly is Morgan Brooke Christensen of Morgan Brooke Design. “You can truly call her our social media guru. She is phenomenal,” says Michèle.
But of course it was the unexpected leap taken by two visionary people that made all this possible. “To take something like a bank and give it new life—that’s really incredible. And it was all the vision of the owners,” says Michèle. “I still can't believe that they created something so beautiful out of what was just a bank. They spared no expense. But now I look out on those patios and try to picture it the way it was, and can’t even visually grasp that. I just can’t say enough about them.”