In 2004, a 27-year-old Robyn Polay of Scarsdale walked into Hartsdale’s Villaggio Italiano to answer a want ad. The tall, blue-eyed and sandy-haired native of New Jersey had worked there previously, as a part-time waitress when she was just 22. This time was different, though. Not only would she work the bar and wait tables, the man who hired her, Danny Santiago, would become her husband seven years later, and together they would end up co-owning the popular Italian eatery and opening a second location.
Villaggio Italiano is located in a busy strip mall along the Hartsdale section of Central Avenue. “I started working here part-time back in 1999,” recalls the 39-year-old Robyn, sitting at one of Villaggio’s casual tables on a rainy Tuesday morning as the staff vacuum, set up the bar and ready the kitchen. Danny arrives about an hour later and quickly gets to work behind the bar, inspecting the glassware. He is her opposite in appearance: dark-haired and dark-eyed.
About a year in, Robyn left her part-time job to move to Honolulu (“best decision ever”) for some soul-searching. “I wanted to find myself,” she explains. “I felt as if life was always ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ and I wanted to venture out and see if I could discover more of who I am without the stress of trying to fit in.”
After four years, Robyn decided to come home, as she felt it was time to get back to her family. It was then that she saw the want ad and instantly responded. When she showed up, the owners at the time, Maria and Big Lou Scampone, introduced her to then 30-year-old Danny Santiago, a waiter who had worked his way up from dishwasher and the single father of two girls. Danny was already part of the Villaggio family, having worked there for 10 years. “I knew him from my earlier stint, but I had never spoken to him before,” shares Robyn.
Danny hired Robyn as a part-time waitress and bartender, and the two became friendly. He often asked her to join him for a drink after work, but Robyn always declined. “Until the one time I said yes,” she recalls. That was six months after Danny’s first invitation. “Danny and I had an instant click, even though we were so different. He was from Mexico; I was from New Jersey. But there were also some deep similarities.”
Robyn had been working double-time. She’d started an all-female public-relations firm, Illumination PR, in Tarrytown. But after five years of running her business and working nights at the restaurant, she decided to devote herself full-time to the firm. Her romance with Danny continued, and six years ago they married. Robyn moved into a ready-made family, close to the restaurant. The Santiago daughters worked at Villaggio, too, and still show up at the restaurant on breaks from college or during especially busy times if they’re available.
Two and a half years ago, the Santiagos started talking about the future of Villaggio. Perhaps they could buy it themselves? While the restaurant wasn’t up for sale, the Scampones were in their 70s and had owned the restaurant for 38 years. “They created this place, this legacy,” she says. “The idea of someone else purchasing it and changing its energy was not what any of us wanted,” Robyn says, referring to the tight-knit staff.
The Santiagos had never owned a restaurant before, but they asked their families for help with the purchase. As Robyn recounts the story, Danny looks up from the bar and adds, “Everyone told us to examine the books and reexamine them. But we knew Papa Lou. He couldn’t stand debt. He paid everyone immediately. There weren’t any outstanding debts to vendors.” The sale was made quickly, and the former waiters had become the proud owners. The Santiagos wanted to keep the laid-back working environment they had enjoyed as employees. “Everyone knew what was expected of them. And either Maria or Lou was always here,” says Robyn. Both Danny and Robyn believe that helped Villaggio be so successful: Customers and staff had real relationships with the owners. So, the couple committed themselves to keeping that tradition.
The transition was smooth, as the Santiagos opted to retain the entire staff. “Most of them have been here at least 15 years,” says Robyn. They added an extra waiter, chef, and busboy. Next came a pizza-delivery service. The restaurant was tweaked and modernized with evening specials and a Happy Hour. They also remained steadfast in their desire to support other local businesses. The olive oil on the table, for example, comes from a local purveyor, The Twisted Branch, in Valhalla. “We have a friend who has a biscotti business in Westchester called BESTcotti, so now we sell her biscotti exclusively,” adds Robyn.
According to the couple, Villaggio’s customer base has continued to grow. Among the regulars: a couple who drive up four times a week from the city because they can’t find Italian food anywhere else that they like as much.
With the restaurant thriving, the Santiagos took another plunge when they opened a second location on February 16, Villaggio of Dobbs Ferry. Danny says the menus are essentially the same at both restaurants, with slight variations. “We want to accommodate the school kids who come to the Dobbs Ferry location. We made it affordable for them to come in for slices and soda during lunchtime,” she says. The portions are also slightly smaller. But all the Italian dishes are made-to-order, with fresh sauces.
Robyn still devotes her days to her PR firm. After turning on the pizza ovens in Dobbs Ferry, she’s at her office in Tarrytown by 9 a.m., puts in a full day, then comes to Villaggio at 6 p.m. to manage the front of the house. Meanwhile, Danny has been splitting nearly all his waking hours between the two restaurants.
The Santiagos still try to take Sundays off and always eat out with their daughters. Their go-to restaurant is Buon Amici, just north on Central Avenue. Robyn says the owner, Chris, has been her inspiration. “You go in there, and he asks you what you want to drink while your table is being set up. He knows all his customers by name.” Their other passion is Mexican food, and Guadalajara in Briarcliff is a favorite. Could a Mexican restaurant be next? Robyn looks up from her soft drink and flashes a “Who knows?” smile. “There might be a Villaggio’s Mexicana in our future.”
Meredith Berlin is a writer, editor, and metalsmith. She believes in encore careers.