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Vince Vaccaro was cooking before he was tall enough to see the top of the stove.
He spent time living with each of his grandmothers, one of whom was barely taller than the 7-year-old Vince.
“My Grandma Vaccaro was 4-foot-11, and she’d stand on a box to work in the kitchen,” Vince Vacarro said in November, which was also the 25th anniversary month for his restaurant in Las Cruces, Lorenzo’s Italian, now located at the Pan Am Plaza on University Avenue.
“I would hang out and help her and taste everything,” Vince said.
To this day, the meatballs at Lorenzo’s are sweetened with currants similar to those he would pick from the vine to help his grandmother cook her sauces, which would simmer 12 hours on the stove.
His other grandmother, Mama Gina, was a specialist in baking, and he recalls the pasta hanging in her kitchen.
In 1995, Vaccaro left his home in California’s Bay Area and headed east. He opened his store in Las Cruces in November of that year, in the space where Andelé restaurant is today.
A couple of years later, in 1997, the restaurant moved to its current location at Pan Am Plaza, in a building that once was a Rex Roast Beef restaurant. At that point he was joined in the operation by his sister, Mary Ostland, who now serves as general manager. Her sons Adam and Anthony, Vince’s nephews, also work as managers at the restaurant, making it truly a family affair.
Over the years, Vince and his business have become intertwined with the city, the university, the people and the businesses.
“I would not want to be anywhere else but Las Cruces,” Vince said. “It’s been not only my livelihood, but my community, too. Being here 25 years has just been a joy.”
If you’re dining in the restaurant, there’s good chance Vince will greet you personally. Customers have become friends, and he’s watched countless families grow and change through the years.
He has always been a supporter of New Mexico State University athletics, and when basketball players, football players and other athletes return to Las Cruces years after their athletic careers, they often stop in and visit the place where they had so much pizza, pasta and fun during their college days. Vaccaro recalls the challenge of setting up a table for former Aggie basketballers, and brothers, Sim and Tanveer Bhullar, 7-foot-6 and 7-foot-3, respectively.
Vaccaro traces his heritage to Sicily, the island that’s the “football” to Italy’s boot. So, the flavors of the restaurant lean Sicilian, which are different because of the island climate and being separated from the mainland.
One of the most popular items at Lorenzo’s is the tasty, soft and highly addictive bread. Vaccaro credits the influence of the bread to another family member, his father, who had restaurants in Arizona. The same dough is used for the pizzas.
He strives to cook with the highest quality and freshest possible ingredients available, and he said he’s grateful one of the largest cheese producers in the southwest is right in Las Cruces’ backyard: Saputo Cheese (formerly F&A Dairy) in the West Mesa industrial area.
In recent years, Lorenzo’s has added menu variations for those on gluten-free and low-carb diets, including alternative pizza crusts made from almond flour and cauliflower.
He’s also added some New Mexico flair, with green chile versions of his con sugo sauce, lasagna and other items.
“We find a way to put green chile in everything,” he said. “My grandmother would kill me!”
As much energy and attention Vaccaro pays to the recipes and the food, he says it’s not the top priority for most customers.
“The three most important things for a restaurant, in this order, are service, ambiance and food,” Vaccaro said. He trains his staff to provide the same friendly, attentive service he himself provides. The ambiance in the restaurant includes murals on the walls depicting Sicilian scenes, including one fisherman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Vaccaro.
“The restaurant business is extremely difficult,” Vaccaro said. “It’s really like nine different businesses in one. We really strive to be consistent in our quality, both in the food and the service.”
When Lorenzo’s first opened in 1995, the Internet was in its infancy. Now it’s everywhere.
“It also makes everybody a food critic,” he said, alluding to the mine field that is Yelp reviews and other user forums.
One such review troubled Vaccaro until he dug a little deeper. Vaccaro uses only Black Angus ribeyes, so was disappointed when a diner termed the steak as being too tough. He eventually learned the critic wore false teeth, but hadn’t put them in for the meal at Lorenzo’s.
A year ago, Vaccaro was looking forward to having lots of celebrations recognizing the restaurant’s 25th anniversary. COVID, however, has changed that. Instead, Vaccaro has spent much of the year coming up with creative responses to the limitations imposed by the virus and the state-mandated restaurant restrictions.
Curbside pickup, delivery, an outdoor tent and $15 pizzas are just some of the new additions 2020 has seen. And if you want to cook your own spaghetti, you can still top it with Lorenzo’s Con Sugo sauces, regular or with green chile, now available in jars at the restaurant and at other outlets in town, including Toucan Market.
“I’m just humbled,” Vaccaro said of the restaurant’s anniversary. “I still can’t believe these people keep coming back, eating the food I grew up on.