FANS FLOCK TO VITELLO'S TO CELEBRATE VERDICT.
STUDIO CITY - For Robert Blake fans across Los Angeles, there was only one place to party after his scot-free verdict Wednesday: Vitello's.
And there was only one possible order: The Robert Blake Special.
Hordes of patrons shunned pricey booths in Beverly Hills and the Westside for the humble blend of the actor's favorite fusilli, spinach, tomatoes and garlic - described as ``innocent and wholesome'' fare.
Just like Blake.
``Tonight's the night,'' declared Kevin and Don Norte, domestic partners who drove from Hollywood to the Studio City haunt for a mutual toast to ``Freedom.''
``It's a moment that is not only L.A., but is being watched all over the world - Paris, London, Australia. This is the place to be.''
They stopped in the street. They peeked in the door. They packed the small restaurant known for its down-home feel - and Hollywood stars.
All to talk of the plain-speaking actor known to TV buffs as Baretta, and to Vitello's regulars as the friendliest neighbor in the world.
Steve Restivo, co-owner of Vitello's, said he'd never seen so many people - nor heard so many Southern accents - among the crowd.
``I always had faith in Robert Blake,'' declared Restivo, who would dish up any plate Blake desired three or four nights a week. ``He was a gentleman. And a gentle man.
``I'm ecstatic. I'm happy. He can (now) live his life.''
Restivo, who is retiring from Vitello's next month with his brother for health reasons, said he'd give the broke Blake a job: ``I'll go back to wash dishes - and he can have my job.''
Outside, seven TV trucks lined the street as throngs gathered to discuss the verdict.
Inside the scalloped awnings and blood-red booths, fans waited beneath hundreds of Hollywood prints - sans Blake's, who never signed one over - for the world-famous special.
And in the back of the fabled restaurant, a piano man helped lift the glasses while regulars looked for their star.
``It's a good night, and it's a good day,'' said Hope Nielsen, 44, of Beverly Hills. ``I thought that (Blake) would show to get a warm welcome from everyone.''
Many came because they had known Blake at the studios, at his nearby Mata Hari Ranch, or at Vitello's.
``I'm celebrating,'' said Maria Schreiber, 50, of Sherman Oaks, who headed for Vitello's as soon as her day was done. ``I'm a psychologist, I know he's innocent. Oh, I can tell. I can tell. I can tell he's an honest man.
``I'm going to order the Robert Blake Special.''
One woman joked that she ordered the special - and found a bullet in it.
Helen Nemchick and Carole Weir had just finished eating at an Irish pub in Burbank when they were drawn toward the Blake murder mecca.
``We're looky-loos,'' said Nemchick, of Burbank. ``We (once) came down here, saw the blood, went over to Mata Hari Ranch. I said, No way he did it. He's going to be acquitted. End of story.''
Not so, snapped Weir, 62, of Burbank. ``He's guilty as sin.''
``There is no way he could do this,'' said Elizabeth Cotton, a former neighbor. ``He loved his children too much and would never put them through this.''
Earlier in the day, die-hard trial watchers raced to the Van Nuys courthouse after hearing the verdict.
``I came to support Robert Blake. All along we knew he was not guilty,'' said Maria Garcia, 30, a housewife from Van Nuys, who said she'd seen Blake's movies, followed the case and wanted to be there for the verdict.
Others, such as Carlos MacPherson and his friend Oscar Rosales, both 30 and Sylmar residents, said they were disgusted.
``I feel it's an injustice. I followed the case from the beginning and the evidence was sufficient to convict him,'' MacPherson said, shaking his head and staring at the media trucks and cameras there for Blake.
``Money buys you freedom. If you have money to buy a defense team then you're going to go free.''
The crowd continued debating as they watched jurors and then Blake and his team of attorneys take questions in the media zone.
Lost in the crowd was Jeff Moreno, 35, a hospital employee from Toluca Lake, who waited holding the box cover of the ``Baretta'' board game.
He hoped Blake would sign it. It was his second attempt; his first request a few months back was rebuffed.
``He was outside having a cigarette and I asked him if he could sign it,'' Moreno recalled.
Blake said no, but agreed to pose for a photo.
Staff Writer Kerry Cavanaugh contributed to this story
Dana Bartholomew, (818) 713-3730
7 photos, box
(1) Maria Schreiber, center, waits to go into Vitello's for a celebratory dinner with nephews Roberto Lopez, left, and Cristian Pellegrini on Wednesday night.
John McCoy/Staff Photographer
(2) Bonny Lee Bakley
(3) Blake is arrested
(4) Thomas Mesereau, Jr.
(5) Harland Braun
(6) Robert Blake
(7) Earle Caldwell
THE BLAKE CASE: A timeline of key events in the slaying of Bonny Lee Bakley and the investigation of Robert Blake.
Warren Huskey/Staff Artist
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Mar 17, 2005|
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