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Cooking up stories

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Vinny DiCostanzo stepped outside his restaurant Vinny’s Italian Kitchen to launch a series on Southern Oregon PBS called “All Across Oregon”
Courtesy photo DiCostanzo visited with Jan Martinez of Tea Room on Wheels in Gold Hill for his fifth episode of “All Across Oregon.”
Courtesy photo DiCostanzo films an episode at the The Oregon Vortex outside Gold Hill.
Courtesy photo DiCostanzo drives a tractor at a farm in the Applegate where the flowers are grown for ZuZu’s Petals, a Jacksonville florist featured on “All Across Oregon.”
Courtesy photo Vinny DiCostanzo checks out the flowers at ZuZu’s Petals in Jacksonville, which was featured in the sixth episode of DiCostanzo’s show on Southern Oregon PBS, “All Across Oregon.”

Vinny DiCostanzo spent most of his life — and forged his career — in front of a stove. But the chef and restaurateur craved being in front of a camera.

“It’s a whole different dimension,” he says.

Public television brings DiCostanzo’s gregarious persona out of his popular Medford restaurant kitchen and onto the screens of loyal customers and other viewers in Southern Oregon. Delving into the region’s food scene, with forays to the South Coast and Northern California, “All Across Oregon” aims to go even father afield since wrapping its first season.

“This travel show is going to extend far beyond Oregon,” says DiCostanzo.

The series had been simmering in the back of DiCostanzo’s mind ever since he regularly guest-starred on KTVL’s “West Coast Flavors” more than two decades ago. When the coronavirus pandemic caused so many eateries to hit the pause button, DiCostanzo, 49, saw a green light for his television ambitions.

“We got hit the hardest,” he says of COVID-19’s impact on restaurants.

With so many in the industry struggling to weather the storm, DiCostanzo wanted to find the silver lining. He ultimately connected with more than 30 locally and family-owned businesses specializing in hospitality and showcased their stories on “All Across Oregon.”

“This is what they love to do,” says DiCostanzo. “From growing their own flowers … to making their own wine.”

Understanding all too well what it’s like to wear “15 different hats” to run a successful business, DiCostanzo not only stars in but produces “All Across Oregon.” His idea gained traction with a filmmaker friend who had recently relocated from Los Angeles. When DiCostanzo pitched a pilot to Southern Oregon PBS, it was clear his grasp on the region’s restaurant scene was only one selling point.

“It’s Vinny’s personality,” says Brad Fay, the station’s interim general manager and chief executive officer. “He’s very magnetic on air, not to mention funny.”

Debuting Oct. 16, “All Across Oregon” has been on hiatus during the station’s latest pledge drive but will resume at 7 p.m. Saturday with episode 7 in Etna, California. Traversing the Rogue Valley from Grants Pass to Ashland, season 1 includes 10 episodes, the finale a spotlight on Brookings. “All Across Oregon” will rerun starting in January in the station’s 8:30 p.m. Thursday primetime slot, says Fay.

“And that’s a testament to how popular it is.”

Also lauded locally, Vinny’s Italian Kitchen reopened in its original North Phoenix Road storefront in November 2020 after several years’ absence. The restaurant that DiCostanzo sold to his father, an immigrant from Ischia, Italy, built on the family’s legacy of eateries founded in New York. The younger DiCostanzo tried a decade ago to leave Vinny’s, which subsequently closed, only to reclaim his birthright.

Returning to four white walls, DiCostanzo rebuilt Vinny’s systems, restored its former nostalgic ambiance and enjoyed a triumphant comeback — two weeks before restrictions to curb the coronavirus shuttered restaurants statewide. Lacking outdoor seating, DiCostanzo immediately switched from dine-in to takeout service and was so overwhelmed with demand that he couldn’t fill all the orders by closing time.

“Thank you so much to the community,” says DiCostanzo. “They supported us in the roughest time.”

Still struggling to staff Vinny’s, DiCostanzo personally prepares nearly every dish served in the restaurant or taken to go. The restaurant is open 4-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, although numerous catering jobs fill DiCostanzo’s “off” hours. Yet he cites his 49-year-old wife, Gina, and 20-year-old daughter, Sophia, as key actors in Vinny’s dinnertime theater. DiCostanzo’s son, Nick, had long been his “right-hand man.”

“I’m not the one who’s important,” says DiCostanzo.

His television endeavors, however, look poised to transcend Southern Oregon. Typical for shows like “All Across Oregon,” says Fay, are inroads into California, Washington, Nevada and Idaho markets. The series could even attract national attention via the PBS website, he adds.

“We’re already getting some regional hit,” says Fay. “It’s all about placement.”

For now, DiCostanzo is well placed to keep profiling his friends and neighbors in hopes of informing audiences’ food choices. DiCostanzo stops short of characterizing “All Across Oregon” as a script for thriving local food economies that rise above corporate chains. But it opens the topic for deeper conversation.

“The family businesses were the highlights,” he says. “We can’t feature it all because we don’t have the time.”

Read more and watch the first six episodes of “All Across Oregon” at sopbs.org/programs/all-across-oregon/

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.