The Story of The Village Restaurant
It was the fall of 1956, Dwight D Eisenhower was at the helm, Elvis Presley made his debut appearance on national television singing his smash hit “hound dog,” and Frank Robinson was just named Rookie of the Year for the national league. Meanwhile, in a small New England town, a father and son-in-law team, with the help of their wives and without ever stepping foot in the kitchen, purchase a 15 seat hamburger joint known as “Wimps” — along with two houses and a commercial building — with the combined savings of $16,500 and a dream . . . that dream was to be called the Village Restaurant.
Over 50 years and 10 presidents have since passed, man has landed on the moon, telephones operate without wires, and the Village, having expanded to over 200 seats, is now recognized as one of the nation’s finest seafood restaurants serving traditional New England cuisine with a contemporary flair.
So, how did it happen that two couples with no prior managerial experience enjoyed such success in an industry farmed for its 90% first year failure rate … and who were these people? Having for many years been privy to much of the intimate details, I still, on occasion, scratch my head in wonder as to the definitive recipe for success, but some things are best left to the imagination. The details are as follows:
Carlton “Carl” Carter was the senior of the quartet and certainly the most colorful. A true Yankee who would on a whim drive to Maine for a cup of coffee and could name every diner from here to the Canadian boarder, Carl was a bundle of nerves and a bundle of joy. Immediately recognizable by his trademark cigar which hung unlit from the corner of his mouth and vibrated at an intensity directly proportionate to his present degree of excitability, Carl was known for his quick wit, his generous heart, and, prior to opening the Village, his rather unique career habits. At various points in his life Carl worked as a landscaper, a farmer, a longshoreman, a garbage collector, a horse trader, a caretaker for an estate. He sold insurance, real estate, radios, cars, trucks, trailers, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and used furniture. He was a selectman in Essex, ran a piggery, was the sealer of weights and measures, dealt lumber, delivered clams in Maine, and worked at General Electric in Lynn … to name a few. The restaurant business, however, was decidedly Carl’s forte, and behind kitchen doors he kept a pace that few could match.
It is said that behind every great man there is a great woman, and for Carl Carter that woman was his wife Alberta Rodgers Carter. Alberta was an extraordinary cook. Many a Sunday I spend as a child seated at her kitchen table devouring raspberry turnovers the likes of which mankind has never witnessed. A mother of four – Kathleen, “Mernie,” Dick, and Dana – Alberta, or “Gram” as she was more affectionately known by her many grand and great-grandchildren, was a deeply religious woman who attended mass daily and was a pillar of the parish which stands adjacent to the Village. With her apron in place, Alberta was unparallel and on a typical day could single handedly turn out 70 or more perfectly layered boiled dinners. Patrons flocked form all corners of the North Shore and beyond to sample her signature daily specials. Though not trained in the classical sense, Mrs. Carter learned her craft from another exemplary cook . . . her mother, Emma Rodgers, who, after losing her husband at a very young age, supported her family throughout the great depression with her culinary skills. Both the clam chowder and the Indian pudding recipes featured today on the Village menu can be traced directly to Emma Rodgers.
Armand Ricci, Carl’s partner and son-in-law, was the businessman in the organization and, with his even temperament and laid back personality, provided balance to the organizational structure. Son of Italian immigrants with a history long in the food industry, Armand grew up working in his family’s meat and produce market on Rantoul St. in Beverly. While his father Michael (a.k.a “The Gunner”) Ricci was as famous for his menacing personality as he was for his home made Italian sausage, Armand took after his mother Elenora Marinacci, a gentle woman whose family operated a mule powered grain mill back in the homeland. A WWII vet who studied business in school, Armand eventually met the woman of his dreams in Kathleen Carter and eventually settled down in the small town of Essex.
If Alberta was the creative inspiration in the kitchen, then it was Kathleen Carter Ricci who brought life to the dining room. Strikingly beautiful yet graciously humble, Kathleen made all who passed through the front door feel welcome and uniquely special. Classically trained in service at the chic Hollywood Beach Hotel and Lake Placid Club, Kathleen was a natural on the restaurant floor. Moreover, with an innate artistic flair, Mrs. Ricci, aside from her responsibilities as dining room manager, also assumed responsibility for menu, interior, and floral design. Still, Kathleen’s most important role was that of mother, for in 1953 she and Armand celebrated the birth of their first son Kevin M. Ricci, who at the age of 3 was to join them for the christening of their new business.
The early days of the Village were difficult ones, characterized by long hours and short compensation. Open 7 days from 5am till 9pm, the business left little rest for the weary and due to the fact that there was no working capital, for a considerable period all family paychecks were held uncashed in a tin container with the understanding that once profits were realized all would be properly compensated. Thankfully, that day did arrive, however, such a paucity of income did make for some tenuous times; Armand even resorted to working nights at his brother-in-laws liquor store in order to support his young family. Moreover, for a town of fewer than 3000 residents, there were a surprising number of restaurants per capita and competition was keen. Still, there was something very special about the Village Restaurant, a certain sincerity, a commitment to quality, the community and an honest value for an honest dollar – characteristics that, appealed greatly to the sentiment of the townspeople of the time.
In such fashion there was no lock present on the front door of the Village for many years and patrons who arrived before the owners were more than welcome to cook their own breakfast and deposit an appropriate fare in a well worn cigar box that sat prominently on the behind the counter.
Tales of fine fare and congenial hospitality quickly began to spread throughout the North Shore and lines began to form at the door. Locals would call ahead and have orders of the one daily luncheon special reserved. Thursdays were boiled dinner days and were guaranteed to sell out early. Saturday it was baked beans and franks and everyone knew to reserve and order for Ivan the Fire Chief. The Village was becoming and integral l part of the community and the time was now ripe for expansion.
Winters in Essex were long and cold and any opportunity for profit was meager. Hence, it became an annual tradition for the Village to close its doors shortly after the New Year to allow for renovations, repairs and much needed vacations. By the early 1960s regulars had already witnessed several major expansions, not the least of which being a new family member. In 1963, 10 years after the birth of Kevin Ricci, Kathleen and Armand welcomed a second son Mark to their world.
The mid to latter 60s brought a continuation of both to the restaurant and to the extended family. Children, cousins, in-laws, and grandchildren now comprised the majority of the workforce … the Village was truly a family affair. It was in 1971, however, that the Village Restaurant underwent perhaps its greatest transformation to date. Until this point in time, no alcohol was ever served in the establishment. Guests while awaiting their tables would hold elaborate tailgate parties in the parking lot or stroll down the causeway to the nearest lounge for refreshment. Far too often, though, one cocktail would lead to two and when Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s table was ready, the couple was nowhere to be found, only to return much later in the evening to inquire if their name had been paged. Obviously something need to be done, and that something came in the form of a small service bar fashioned out of a little used broom closet which stood beside a boiler room. Though there was barely room to move, the new addition proved wildly popular and eventually lead to the construction of a more traditional lounge with 12 stools and ample room for breathing.
With 1979 came the end of an era: after nearly 25 years of service, Carl Carter was ready for retirement. Somewhat of a local legend with his good hearted nature and wry sense of humor, Carl was to be sadly missed and there were plenty of doubters who felt the Village could never exist without him, but with Armand now sole proprietor, the restaurant was in good hands and continued to break new grounds. It was during the 1980s that the first credit card was accepted at the Village, a point of sales system was introduced to facilitate the ordering process, and a 40 seat green house was constructed, increasing the seating capacity to over 200 gusts. The Village was to live on.
But it was in 1989 that life as we knew it came to a standstill for the Village family. It was on January 9, just a few short days after the restaurant closed for the season that Armand Ricci, my father, was taken from us another victim of the plague we know as cancer. Two weeks I have spent attempting to write this paragraph. What does one say? It is wealth of emotion that can only be appreciated only by one who has lost the life of a parent. For my brother and for myself, it was no different; yet, still, there was another component to be considered … the family business … a cornerstone of the community and, for us, in many ways a living breathing entity from which memories were had, families were supported and educations were funded. Like most young men born into a family business, we certainly had entertained, at various points in our lives, the possibility of alternative careers – be it a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. But, by the spring of 1989, there was no doubt as to our futures.
Now just about everyone has a story to tell of the successful family business and the next generation children with the “big ideas.” You know where this one is going, and so do we. If there was one concept to be agreed upon it was that there were to be no major or immediate changes to the menu or the manner in which the Village Restaurant was to be run. In fact, our approach was quite the antithesis. Anyone who has shared a recipe knows that alterations are inevitable along the way — an addition, an omission, and extra teaspoon. Hence, it was our choice to delve deep into the archives and bring forth the original hand written recipes — just like Gram used to make! We are very proud that the traditional New England recipes featured on the Village menu are just that — and date back as many as three or four generations.
Nevertheless, while good food never goes out of style, dining trends do evolve throughout the years. We are acutely aware of the fact menus have taken a much more global feel and that there is a new awareness with regard to health that did not exist 50 years ago. Hence our menu is now one of the most expansive on the North Shore, paying tribute to the past while fully embracing the present with lighter preparations and influences from Europe and Asia.
Mark Bittman, Gourmet Magazine, Saveur, the Boston Globe and Phantom Gourmet have all sung the praises of our food and hospitality, but it is Roadfood’s assertion that our Village Restaurant is “truly where the locals eat” of which we are most proud. Whether you are an old salt, a new traditionalist, a vegetarian, or a carnivore, we invite you to join our family for what we believe to be the best the North Shore has to offer.