Vela appeared on the Doylestown restaurant radar very, very quietly. You might even say, under the radar. Chef-owner Donna Ewanciw wanted to make sure that she and her team were ready to provide the quality of food and the dining experience to meet her standards. But after a soft opening last Fall, the word is out. Vela (pron. vay-la) is Italian for “sail.” And sail into Doylestown it has.
When I sat down with Donna I had lots of questions. Foremost, where did you come from? I pride myself on knowing the chefs of Bucks County. But here was this classy restaurant with an exciting menu, full of classic Italian dishes made simply with seasonal ingredients. How did I miss this chef?
Well, that’s because Donna is new to Bucks County. But not new to the fine dining scene in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Most recently, Donna has been the co-owner of Radice, the rustic Italian restaurant in Blue Bell that garnered three bells from Craig LaBan, the Inquirer’s food critic.
Donna’s energy belies her 30 plus years of experience. Her spare, petite frame would probably cause many to question her passion for Italian food (“How are you so skinny?”).
“I still hit the kitchen every day and enjoy it. I’m not 24 anymore but I feel like it when I’m in the kitchen,” she explains, and the sparkle in her eyes attests to her words.
BCT: Tell me about your vision for the food at Vela.
Donna: Our dishes are crafted with tradition, with an Italian accent, but with a lightness to it. Our sauces are made the classic (Italian) way, but not heavy. I want the food prepared simply so that you can taste the main components of the dish. I’m committed to doing what’s right by the food.
Each dish is no more than five ingredients with a strong focus on seasonal vegetables. For example, you’ll see on our winter menu the Braised Veal Short Ribs served with a rutabaga risotto, glazed carrots, and roasted Brussels sprouts.
I like using legumes and grains too, mixed or plain, like barley and Swiss chard with Salmon, or the black lentil ragu under our roasted duck. And, of course, all our pasta is made in-house – the gnocchi, pappardelle, lasagna sheets.
BCT: What are the underlying values that drive Vela?
Donna: Traditions, family, hospitality, consistency, culture. We grew up with the tradition of being around the table with family. It’s important to find that time to sit and enjoy with friends, family. What’s great is that I still get to see people gather around the table even though my own family is grown.
BCT: On the number of occasions when I have dined at Vela, I was impressed with the staff. They are friendly and warm, but also professional. It feels like you’ve got a good team. How did you get this going?
Donna: In the beginning, the staff just really came together. They said to me, “We want you to be successful, we’re really behind you.” And I want the staff to feel like they are a part of the whole success. I want to provide employees with a great environment to live and grow. I love to teach.
Consistency applies to not just the food, but also the working environment. For instance, we need to give employees an environment that is consistent every day. We keep the people who connect and believe in our vision and let others leave. Low turnover results in consistency too. And b
BCT: Because the building was new construction, you had the opportunity to really design the space you wanted. How would you describe the dining atmosphere?
Donna: We want a “lux-comfort” feel. The staff is attentive but not hovering. Guests are attended to but don’t even notice. We want you to sit and relax, have a conversation. And an environment that’s meant for all – family, dating, friends getting together.
We chose neutral colors with accents of blue. It’s a little mid-century modern, but the lights are warm. With large windows and a tall ceiling, it’s very open and airy but the acoustics are still good.
BCT: The bar is very nice too. We like to eat at the bar and we really liked it. The bartenders are friendly, the selection is interesting, with a good representation of microdistilleries and other smaller producers.
Donna: Yes, we’ve got a great beverage program and the bartenders are very knowledgeable. There are high tops too in the bar area where you can dine.
BCT: It seems like Vela is off to a great start. Here’s to your success.
Donna: I feel very fortunate [to have been able to have a career like this]. I truly have a passion for this. There’s nothing like the food world. I’m surrounded by people who are creative and friendly. I take great pleasure in making people happy around the table. And when I have the return of happy guests, it makes it easy.
Lunch: Mon–Fri 11:30 am–2:00 pm
Dinner: Mon–Thu 5:00 pm–10:00 pm; Fri, Sat 5:00 pm–11:00 pm
Want to experience Vela and meet some great people too? On Sunday, April 28 the Bucks County Taste Dinner Club is holding a dinner at Vela.
Click here for more information and to register.
Photos courtesy Vela Restaurant