This classic Williamstown restaurant serves up inspired Italian fare in Wood County.
At Da Vinci’s Restaurant, the overwhelming feeling is of abundance. It’s there in the food—mounds of pasta covered in rich sauces, glasses brimming with generous pours of wine, layers of sugar rising high off the plate to form luxurious desserts. It’s there on the menu—a two-page spread that reveals an impressive slate of options, from pizza and subs to pasta and steak. And it’s there in the restaurant itself—a huge building that spans three floors and seats hundreds. As a hostess leads you to your table you’re swept past one room after another, each filled with guests chatting, laughing, and eating. And that’s likely to be true no matter when you go—Da Vinci’s in Wood County is always busy.
In 1978 Jim and Marilyn Pettit bought an old Sunoco gas station in Williamstown and set about turning it into a pizza shop—as the story goes, they took out a variable rate loan to do it, and the interest rate eventually grew to a whopping 23 percent. But they persevered and opened for business in 1980, serving a simple menu of pizza and subs. “We started out as one little dining room and a salad bar—we had 13 tables,” says Chris Bender. Chris has been at Da Vinci’s almost since the beginning. She started working for the Pettits as a server three decades ago, and rose through the ranks over the years until she was managing the entire place. “This wasn’t what I wanted to do forever—this was just a stepping stone, this was to pay my way through college,” she says. “But I loved the people—I loved the customers, I loved the employees. They’re my friends. So I never left.” Two years ago Chris bought the restaurant from the Pettits, who were by then living in North Carolina and helping their daughter run a restaurant there. “I’m here every day, all day,” Chris says. “I figured if I’m going to live here I may as well own it.”
Since it opened Da Vinci’s has expanded manifold. That tiny pizza joint in a gas station could serve 52 people. Now the restaurant serves up a full menu of Italian fare in a sprawling establishment that can seat 550 on a rainy day and up to 600 when the patio is open. Seating is divided between several rooms, so even though the restaurant is huge, it feels intimate. “We have all these different sections, and each room kind of has its own aura,” Chris says. When you walk through the front door you see an elegant but basic dining room—it’s well lit and near the door. Downstairs is a private room used mainly for banquets, and if you step up about 10 stairs you feel like you’re in a different restaurant entirely—it’s dimly lit and filled with twisting greenery. “It’s a vineyard feel,” Chris says. “It feels almost like a California field.” Step through another door, though, and you’re in a glassed-in porch that employees call “the solarium.” There’s also a lounge area near the bar that Chris describes as “very dark and Tuscany feeling,” and a private room used for things like wedding showers that you have to climb 20 feet of stairs to get to. “When people come in they not only request their favorite server, but they request their favorite room,” Chris says.
They also request their favorite dishes, of course, and Da Vinci’s isn’t short on crowd pleasers—several creations are unique to Da Vinci’s. Take the German Pizza, for example. It’s a Da Vinci’s pizza crust topped with horseradish sauce in lieu of tomato sauce, plus corned beef, sauerkraut, and cheese. “You either love it or you hate it,” Chris says, but most people love it. Jim Pettit invented the dish back in the early days of the restaurant, playing around in the kitchen, and it quickly caught on—it was soon so popular he had it trademarked. Then there’s the Pasta Mona Lisa, another bestseller that’s trademarked. It’s thin spaghetti baked with meat sauce, mozzarella cheese, green peppers, and pepperoni. “We build it from the bottom up,” Chris says. “It’s like we’re building Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa—everything is artfully topped.”
In addition to the regular menu, the restaurant has an extensive list of specials that change every day—all the better to accommodate the regulars who come in several times a week. To help customers navigate that rotating menu, the restaurant has a master list of regular customers, their phone numbers, and their favorite specials. Whenever that dish is on the menu, that customer gets a call letting them know. The call list for dessert items is especially long—and people especially love the coconut cream pie. “There are a lot of things we have only as specials that are absolutely wonderful, and when people get the call they run in for them,” Chris says. Just like everything at Da Vinci’s, the call list has been around for years, enduring even as most other places have transitioned to text messages or email blasts. “We like that personal feeling,” Chris says. “We’re connected with our customers here, and we like it that way.” 215 Highland Avenue, Williamstown, WV 26187 304.375.3633, villadavinci.com
written by SHAY MAUNZ
photographed by CARLA WITT FORD