When Leno Met Vito
Jay Leno was here to drive a steam car up Mt. Washington — and eat
"Cousins" Jay Leno and Vito Marcello
Even celebrities get hungry while exploring our North Country. So, when Jay Leno and his entourage felt peckish while passing through, they did what most folks do and checked the internet. Some good reviews (and, no doubt, the presence of a “Best of NH” logo) led them to Vito Marcello’s Italian Bistro in North Conway. But there was also just something about that name that inspired confidence.
“He said he liked that both my first and last names were Italian,” recalls Marcello. “I was in the kitchen when my mother came in and said, ‘Vito, you’ll never believe who’s in your dining room right now. Jay Leno.’ So I say, ‘No way, get out of here.’ I didn’t go out there right away. I wanted him to enjoy his dinner, so I sent out an antipasta and said to tell him welcome to my restaurant and welcome to the White Mountains.”
Turns out Leno was staying at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort in nearby Bretton Woods. He had come north to film an episode of his popular “Jay Leno’s Garage” show in which he would drive a classic Stanley Steamer car up the Mt. Washington Auto Road. The episode is likely to be televised on CNBC in the fall.
Marcello says Leno isn’t the first famous person to walk into one of his restaurants — he’s fed celebrities ranging from Richard Dreyfuss to JFK Jr. — but when he finally came to the table, he and Leno hit it off immediately. “I felt so at home with this guy, talking nonstop about L.A. and cars. I told him I once had a Viper. He said, ‘I’ve got one!’ I imagine he’s got 10,” says Marcello. People ask if he got anything signed by the star, but he says, “I don’t need his autograph. I felt like I’d see him again. It’s a small world and he said, ‘I’ll tell all my friends about your place.’”
Along with the antipasta, Leno’s group had Marcello’s signature arancini (deep fried rice balls stuffed with ragu, cheese and peas — Marcello uses a special risotto for his rice) with a tangy marinara. For his main course, Leno ordered chicken Parmesan.
“The guy loves to eat,” says Marcello, who can’t resist describing Leno’s choice in detail. “We use our own fresh cutlets of all-natural chicken breast lightly pounded and breaded and sautéed, topped with my delicious basil marinara sauce and a blend of Italian cheeses baked to perfection. It was served with our house-made fresh pasta — Gigli Toscani, which looks like a Tuscan lily. Jay ate every bit of it and had no room for dessert. Told me he couldn’t fit another morsel!”
The other guests in the restaurant were aware of Leno’s presence but polite through the meal — and they were rewarded. After eating, the former host of “The Tonight Show” chatted folks up, posed for selfies and gave everyone who wanted it some time. On the way out, Leno found Marcello’s mother, Angela, and said something to her.
Afterward, she grabbed her son and exclaimed, “He said he thought I was your wife!” Marcello still chuckles. “He knew how to make everyone feel good.”