Villaggio Italiano Restaurant in Hartsdale is a true labor of love for its owners, Robyn and Danny Santiago. Though the couple acquired the restaurant in 2015, the Italian eatery at 389 N. Central Ave. has long held a special place in the hearts of the husband-and-wife duo.
The couple first met at the restaurant nearly two decades ago, when Danny worked behind the bar and in the kitchen, while Robyn served as a waitress. In the years that followed, Danny moved up the ranks at Villaggio, while Robyn went on to start her own public relations firm, Illumination PR.
When Villaggio’s former owners, who had helmed the eatery for more than 38 years, decided it was time to retire, Danny and Robyn knew they couldn’t let the restaurant fall into the hands of a stranger.
“It was important to us that we continued as one family,” Robyn says. “Danny and I knew it was a successful location since we both worked there, and we knew the hard work and dedication that the previous owners had put into Villaggio.”
For Danny, Villaggio is truly a home away from home. He immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico nearly 30 years ago to take up a job as a dishwasher at the restaurant. Three other employees of the eatery also hail from his hometown.
Because of this, it was important to Robyn and Danny to retain the restaurant’s workforce.
“We wanted to ensure that we all stayed together,” Robyn says. “The existing staff is family. “
Similarly, the couple says keeping the eatery’s menu consistent was important.
“The old saying, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ fits perfectly in this scenario,” Robyn says. “The previous owners spent time perfecting the menu and the way the restaurant was run. We thought that if we came in and bought the restaurant and changed everything, we would lose the loyalty of our already loyal customer base.”
But there have been a few changes since the Santiagos took over. The couple hosts a jazz band each week and, paying tribute to Danny’s heritage, a mariachi band comes in for special occasions.
I visit the restaurant on a blustery afternoon and start with a dish that Danny and Robyn tell me is a restaurant staple — a salad pizza, which features a crisp lettuce, chunks of chicken, gorgonzola cheese and a house dressing atop a slice of pepperoni and cheese pie.
Shrimp, clams and mussels mingle with stuffed mushrooms, eggplant and artichoke in a hot antipasto. Though the mushrooms are a standout, the rest of the dish falls flat, failing to provide any new or unexpected additions to a signature Italian dish.
A plate of mozzarella en carrozza — which translates to mozzarella in a carriage — is truly exceptional, and I find myself going back for multiple helpings of the fried cheese and bread sandwich. The dish is drizzled with a scrumptious Francese sauce that I scrape from the plate.
Penne alla vodka is another of the restaurant’s specialties, I’m told, and for good reason. Noodles are cooked al dente and lightly tossed in a sweet red sauce. A grilled chicken breast is sautéed with rosemary and garlic and served with chopped spinach, pomodoro sauce and homemade mozzarella. An expertly seared and juicy pork chop is paired with a heaping portion of mushrooms and carrots.
Desserts range from brownie sundaes topped with whipped cream and served in a long-stemmed glass to tiramisu and flan.
The success of the longstanding restaurant is one the Santiagos hope to replicate at a second Villaggio location in Dobbs Ferry. The new restaurant, set to open in early this year, “was perfect for us,” Robyn says. “We decided we wanted to try (another location) and what better place than a river town like Dobbs Ferry.”
Various times during our meal, both Robyn and Danny stand to greet new customers, often embracing them in bear hugs and inquiring about children or family members.
“Our customers are truly family to us,” Robyn says. “They come in to Villaggio expecting the meal to taste the same, their favorite items on the menu and the quality and service that Villaggio’s staff have delivered for almost 40 years. Why change a thing?”
For more, visit villaggiosrestaurant.com.