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.
They 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. Over the years, Danny moved up the ranks at Villaggio, eventually becoming a manager, while Robyn went on to start her own public relations firm in Valhalla, Illumination PR. She has continued as the boutique firm’s CEO since becoming a restaurant owner.
When Villaggio’s former owners, Maria and Lou Scampone, 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 said. “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 emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico nearly 30 years ago and took a job as a dishwasher at the restaurant. Three other employees of the eatery also hail from his hometown.
“The existing staff is family,” said Robyn. “We all get on each other’s nerves from time to time but at the end of the day, we are all family.” When assuming ownership, it was important to the couple to retain the restaurant’s workforce.
“Our families grew up together, and their kids came to the restaurant often. For some of the staff, this is the only job they’ve known,” Robyn said. “Changing that would be disruptive to us, to them and to their families.”
And keeping the eatery’s menu consistent too was important to the new owners.
“The old saying, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ fits perfectly in this scenario,” Robyn said. “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.
Transitioning to restaurant ownership, the Santiagos have had to navigate a few bumps in the road, especially when it comes to hiring new employees.
“We are fortunate to have the staff we do,” Robyn said. “Their work ethic is beyond what most new employees have, so when we wanted to add employees when business increased, we found interviewing, training and keeping employees was the most challenging. I think the stories my husband has from hiring, training and losing staff are bookworthy.”
The success of the longstanding restaurant is one the Santiagos hope to replicate at a second Villaggio location. The new restaurant, which opened earlier this year at 20 Cedar St. in Dobbs Ferry, “was perfect for us,” Robyn said. “We decided we wanted to try (another location) and what better place than a river town like Dobbs Ferry.”
When both Robyn and Danny are present at Villaggio, they can usually be found greeting customers, often embracing them in bear hugs and inquiring about children or family members.
“Our customers are truly family to us,” Robyn said. “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?”