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ON THE SCENE: Villa Vespa Act III: Secret’s in the sauce

April 19, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Back in the 1980s, Honda began walloping U.S. auto manufacturers. Business consultants wanted to know their secret, so one asked Honda and a leading U.S. car manufacturer, I believe Chrysler, what was the focus of their business. The U.S. rep's response was, "We make cars." Honda's was, "We make engines."

If you ask Kim Vespa about the secret to the success of her father's restaurant, Villa Vespa, and her take-out business, the Villa Vespa Pasta & Sauce Co., she'd say, "the sauce." On Saturday, March 30, after 20 years running one of the most successful and beloved take-out businesses in the region, Kim closed the doors of her business at 2250 Saranac Ave., shifting to focus her efforts on producing the sauce.

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Article Photos

Kim Vespa cooks onions for Villa Vespa marinara sauce.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Villa Vespa Act I

Following World War II, where he served as a paratrooper in the Pacific Theatre, George Vespa, the son of Italian immigrants, married Marlene Godin in 1954 and moved to Lake Placid to manage the Hotel Marcy for his friend Jack Davis. In 1974, after Davis sold the hotel, George initially went into construction. His friend Ron Butler encouraged George to follow his dream of opening his own restaurant, which he and Marlene did, buying the Tik Tok bar/restaurant on Saranac Avenue and turning it into the Villa Vespa, expanding the number of owner-chef establishments.

"The night George opened the Villa Vespa was the 50th birthday of maybe Bill Hurley and Gordon Wilson," said Butler. "Joanie Wilson jumped out of the cake. They had a cardboard cake, Joanie jumped out, and all George's friends were there. It was a private party, and that was his opening night. I'd go there a lot of nights after they closed, often with Charlie Hinds, and George would cook us something special."

For people who loved good food, Lake Placid excelled with Red La Fountain's Steak and Stinger, Fred Richards's Fredericks, and George's Villa Vespa. Most knew George as the Marcy's manager, so few outside of family and close friends knew how well he could cook, skills he gained from his parents. Marlene's lead role was as the host who managed the dining room, which featured one wall covered with the signatures of Olympians and other leading community personalities.

In the kitchen was Kim, learning the family traditions of how to make a great sauce, which starts with the best possible ingredients cooked quickly so the freshness and rich flavors come through. Yes, the hospitality and atmosphere were terrific, but coming to Villa Vespa, one could count on the consistent quality of the food with the sauce providing an excellent foundation for creating dishes such as chicken parmigiana, baked ziti and lasagna.

After 23 years running the business, one that he started in his early 50s, George decided to turn in his apron and close the restaurant as his daughter Kim wasn't interested in taking it on.

"I had a 2-year-old daughter, so I didn't want to run a restaurant-like business anymore," said Kim. "I didn't want to work from 11 in the morning to 11 at night. So, I decided to do take-out, the heat-and-eat style, which would allow me to go home at 6 o'clock at night and be with my daughter. That's what inspired me to do this. I knew we had delicious food and that I could put the sauce in a jar."

George closed the restaurant in 1997 and sold the property to the Rite Aid corporation.

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Villa Vespa Act II

In June 1998, Kim and Marlene began selling the Vespa products in local stores and on Dec. 20, 1999, they opened the Villa Vespa Pasta & Sauce Co. take-out business. It featured many of the most popular dishes from the restaurant, all based on George's recipes, along with many items featuring her recipes.

"I learned from my father how to cook. He also loved to bake," said Kim. "I certainly learned how to work from both my parents, there is no doubt. I learned how not to take a vacation until it's time to take one. You work all summer and can't think about taking a vacation until sometime after Labor Day. I learned how to postpone your dreams, say taking a vacation in October instead of during the summer."

As for the secret of a good sauce, Kim said that without a doubt it begins with the tomato and the length of time you cook it. She said that it would be a struggle to make a great sauce from an inferior tomato, be it fresh or from most cans sold on the shelves. She said an excellent marina sauce doesn't require cooking for hours on end; rather, it's quite the opposite. The key is quality ingredients: tomatoes, onions and spices.

One of the things she's learned is that many people either don't like to cook or don't know how. As a consequence, they need detailed instructions, such as heating a take-out dish in the oven. She said people do love good food and appreciate the quality of the items she prepared, and that allowed her to build a broad and loyal fan base. Meaningful were the people who called to say how much they enjoyed their meals, be it a local, visitor or seasonal resident who had taken their food back to their home in New York City. They felt, after warming it up, that they just had a home-cooked meal.

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Villa Vespa Act III

On March 30, Kim officially took her business in a new direction after closing the doors of the Villa Vespa Pasta & Sauce Co.

"I decided that it was time to let the take-out go because of my age and that it's so physical. It's a very physical business," she said. "You're lifting and carrying around 5-gallon buckets or large cans of tomatoes all day, cranking cans open every day. Plus, it's a messy job. Getting tomato sauce out of my clothes is the easy part."

Kim's next step is to write a cookbook that features all the recipes people have come to love, starting with the marinara sauce. She wants to keep it simple, have it lushly photographed, and provide a history of the Villa Vespa. She wants people to fall in love with food. Also, she is working with a company that will replicate and jar her sauce, which people will be able to purchase in specialty stores and on the internet. Short term, she and her assistant, Barbara Rand Ryan, are cranking out more than 100 cases of sauce that will be available at several local outlets.

Barbara first worked at the Villa Vespa in the late 1970s through the 1980 Winter Olympics and more recently has been working with Kim for the last two and a half years.

"I've learned how to peel garlic and cook better," said Barbara.

"It's so sentimental that they're closing," said neighbor Betsy Lowe. "We always got their chicken parmigiana and their Italian bread that was ready to bake in the oven. They had a wonderful selection of desserts. It was so great that if I was at a meeting and we're going to have dinner on the fly, we'd do a take-out from Villa Vespa, which made it so easy. They were the nicest people, too, so kind and had great customer service. They're great to have as neighbors."

"I'm proud of what we've accomplished and I'm grateful for the support of our customers, but I'm done," said Kim. "I'm tired. I put 20 years here following 23 at the restaurant. It's time for a change. I'm excited about creating the cookbook and making the sauce available."

Villa Vespa sauce is available at the Green Goddess Natural Market and the Corner Store in Lake Placid and at Nori's in Saranac Lake.

 
 
 

 

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