Menbere Aklilu fills Salute E Vita Ristorante with an aura of magnetism and grace. Greeting customers, she speaks in sharp, passionate sentences punctured by small gasps and the occasional Italian word. She can be found laughing with regulars over a meal or organizing her next philanthropic endeavor — but she’s rarely found sitting still. Aklilu, who took ownership of Salute nearly 15 years ago, has established the restaurant as a premier spot for fine dining and philanthropy in Richmond.
Aklilu was born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome before moving to Oakland, penniless, in the mid 1990’s. She started as a hostess at Salute shortly after arriving in the Bay Area, which Aklilu counts as one of the first of her many blessings. Another came in the early 2000’s in the form of a loan large enough to purchase Salute and make it her own. For all that she has been given, Aklilu pours her gratitude and compassion back into her restaurant and the community.
“The most important thing for me is being with the people in my restaurant, Aklilu explains. “I love the people. The happiness in my life comes from being with them and making them happy. I have to make sure that no matter what they’re feeling when they walk in, we make them forget about the bad feeling.”
The key to this happiness, of course, is in the cuisine. The joy that Aklilu spreads from her cooking starts within herself, and it is when she starts talking about food that she becomes most animated. “When I start cooking — oh my gosh — you know what comes in front of me? I feel like I’m in Italy. I am most happy then, and I start to sing while I cook.”
Her voice becomes soft and dreamy yet full of spirit when she describes her life abroad. “I remember the smells,” Aklilu explains. “Everywhere there is the aroma — the onion, the tomato, the garlic. It comes back to me when I cook and I get so full of joy.”
She is self-possessed and lively when describing what she does with her food. Her perfect pizza is thin and crispy, topped with more sauce than cheese. The lasagna sauce is meaty with blended tomatoes. Noodles are strictly al dente — and everything is made in-house.
The restaurant itself is an embodiment of Aklilu’s vitality and hospitality. Designed like a Cape Cod-style house right on Marina Bay, it feels intimate — like you’re actually in her house. And, as Aklilu explains, diners might as well be. “This place is really my home. I’m the first one in and the last one out during the day. It’s beautiful, and I want to open it to everyone.”
Every Thanksgiving for the past four years, that’s exactly what she has done. As a way to help out the community and give thanks for what she has been given in life, Aklilu hosts a Thanksgiving meal for needy families and individuals in the city. This year, she hosted veterans as the guests of honor and raised $50,000 for the occasion.
On top of that, Aklilu regularly sponsors tuition for girls to attend Northern Lights Academy in Oakland, a private school focused on young girls who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend such an institution.
In her cooking and her giving, Aklilu has established Salute E Vita as an institution that fosters both generosity and an appreciation for fine cuisine. Signs of this are present in her specific and flavorful recipes and her insistence that diners feel as if they are at her home dinner table.
“I feel like I have a responsibility here,” Aklilu explains. “In hospitality, in cooking, in life — what makes it best is making those around you happy. It’s about giving love every day.”
Salute E Vita
1900 Esplanade, Marina Bay, Richmond
Monday - Saturday: 11 am to 10 pmSunday: 10 am to 10 pm
Learn more here.