Greek-born restaurateur's spot is a Mediterranean island in Cheshire

Be jaded, be absent minded, be selectively attentive, but the third time you hear something, listen. Do this, and you may find yourself cruising down an arrow-straight length of Highland Avenue in Cheshire — like a bookmark holding its place at the midpoint between Waterbury and Meriden — and see nothing in particular, until you do.

Viron Rondo Osteria is bold. The first impression is someone has chosen to place the clubhouse of a country club on a long valley road dotted with low, commercial buildings. The scale of the restaurant is striking. On a perfect Thursday evening when I visit after taking some advice this spring, people have flocked there.

The space is landscaped and green, and multiple layers of patios with an outdoor bar make up the outworks. Enter through doors which could comfortably accept mounted cavalry, and you’ll be shown to a table in one of the dining rooms or the lounge area, where a square bar surrounds a chandelier the size of a small hot air balloon. The space you see is the dream of its owner, Viron Rondos.

Rondos moved to New York from his native Greece, and has been in hospitality his entire life, previously owning restaurants in Avon and Litchfield before opening the original Viron Rondo Osteria at the same location in 2014.

“We always had great food, but the space was not good enough,” he says, talking about his previous limitations while swirling a glass of wine at a table in the lounge. Now, after a 14,000-square-foot expansion which cost him nearly $8 million, he supposes he has what he needs.

He’s quick to credit everyone’s contribution to making the Osteria a reality when it reopened fully in October 2019: Litchfield County-based French designer Martine Longhi who conceived the interior and exterior spaces, Mueller American lighting of Collinsville, the artisans who restored the chandelier, which had hung in the theater of the New York Film Academy from 1969 to 2017, and his staff. “I have the best people working here, anywhere in the state. I absolutely believe this.

“We had a small kitchen, a small bar, it sat 13 people. Now, our kitchen” — here he pats the air with his hands, palms facing down — “it is underneath where our parking lot used to be, we built on top of it. There is room for everyone to work.”

I ask him what the capacity of the restaurant is now. “Six hundred and fifty,” Rondos says quickly, like he hasn’t just quoted the manifest for a small cruise ship.

Viron Rondo Osteria

1721 Highland Ave., Cheshire

203-439-2727, vironrondoosteria.com

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Wheelchair accessible

“And then the shutdown happened,” I say, and he nods.

“The patio saved us last summer, and the community,” Rondos says. “So many came here for takeout, everyone has been so supportive from the very beginning. I want to make everyone here feel like they are in my home, to give them the best food, the best atmosphere. We source food from local farms, butchers — they came when we opened just to give us their food and welcome us here.”

Thomas Crawford, a native of Rocky Hill, joined Viron Rondo as co-executive chef in March 2021 from Bricco Trattoria in Glastonbury. He immediately set to work tweaking both the kitchen and menu.

“I was out here picking selections from farms,” he says of my first course, a Greek salad with cucumber, onions, bell pepper, a flat of deeply tangy feta the size of my palm, and small, halved tomatoes I’d remarked were shockingly good, considering it was mid-May in Connecticut. “Those came from March Farm in Bethlehem.”

He rattles off a few other local sources — Gutt Family Farm in Glastonbury, Middle Acres in Rhode Island — before finishing the thought: “We’d come up with dishes that were all about the ingredients, the menu’s evolving. Viron gave me a great challenge with the volume especially. We’ll do 1,000 covers on a weekend night, and my goal is to have it organized so the food will be good for everyone. With the volume of the place, you can’t just say ‘this is how it’s going to be’ and it happens. You have to have everyone working together.”

The menu is primarily Italian, from salads and antipasto, to meat and seafood dishes served as plates or family style, carbonara and clam sauces, but Crawford plans Greek and other variations.

My second course is grilled octopus, served over a charred white bean purée, with chorizo, Taggiasca olives, and chimichurri. It can be a tricky protein, but the octopus is grilled just right, bites alternating between the herbal, garlicky chimi, and the heat of the chorizo punched up with an addition of Calabrian chilis in the bean purée, smoothed out with a drizzle of sweet balsamic vinegar.

Anyone looking for something simple to share can’t go wrong with VR’s brick-oven pizzas, if the margarita I had with fresh mozzarella and sweet, fresh tomato sauce is an indicator.

Everyone I could see in the lounge area, at least 60 people, socially distanced, were there to eat. A few paused on the way in or out to speak — often in Greek — to Rondos or Dimitrios Zahariadis, one of the more famous mixologists in Connecticut, and the head of Viron Rondo’s bar program.

Zahariadis is a recognizable face from his time running Highland Brass Co. cocktail bar in Waterbury, to the industry as a founder of Connecticut’s chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild, and to a national audience from his appearances online and on television as The Cocktail Chemist. His line of canned cocktails by the same name have been picked up by Mohegan Sun, and are available in a few varieties at Viron Rondo. Ask for “Something Good” and his version arrives made with gluten-free American vodka, fresh lemon juice, cane sugar and subtle hints of elderflower and violet.

My pick from Viron Rondo’s cocktail menu is the Meli Manhattan, made with Old Forester bourbon, sweet vermouth, chocolate bitters and a spiced honey liqueur Zahariadis says is popular in Greece. The alcohol’s heat is rounded smooth by the confluence of mellow notes of the oak barrel flowing together with the cocoa and honey.

If your travels this month take you through central Connecticut, if you’re looking for a night in the open air, or a cocktail under the star cluster of that chandelier, here’s your island getaway.

This article originally appeared in Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Sign up for the newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. On Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.