Restaurants come and go on the East End, but venerable has been a time-tested family favorite for generations.
Especially for the one running it.
Cristen Pensa represents the third successive generation of her family to own and operate the landmark Hampton Bays eatery since her grandfather, Italian-born Domenico Pensa, purchased the restaurant from founder Paul Villa 46 years ago. And technically, the dynasty dates even earlier: Villa was the senior Pensa’s cousin.
“I’ve been literally working here my entire life,” said Cristen, who along with parents Charles and Cheryl comprise the current management trifecta.
“I was here at seven-years-old painting the picket fence out front just to do something,” Cristen said.
The Hampton Bays native did dish duty and bused tables, served a stint as salad/dessert girl and slowly worked her way to waitress, hostess and bartender.
After attending business school, she returned as co-owner, taking the reigns as her parents retired to Shelter Island and opened a small eatery at the Goat Hill golf course.
They, along with uncle Jack Pensa and wife Margaret, previously ran the restaurant for nearly 25 years.
“Out of five children, the two brothers and their wives took over for my father-in-law,” said Cheryl. “My husband was the chef, my sister-and-law and I did all the bookwork, hosting, baking.”
Keeping Villa Paul a family affair wasn’t without struggle, with most relatives opting to pursue careers in different industries elsewhere. Prior to Charles and Cheryl’s return, the restaurant was briefly offered for sale last fall as the family faced the question of who was left to run it.
Nevertheless, the born restaurateurs answered their innate calling a second time—and they don’t regret it.
“I wasn’t sure if my parents wanted to pass this onto me knowing the hardships we’ve had to face, but it’s just in my blood and always what I’ve wanted to do,” said Cristen. “I’ve thought about other things, like interior design, but I’ve gotten to do some here. My mom likes gardening, she does that here. There’s just so many parts involved running a restaurant that it’s never boring.”
Each generation has made their mark. Charles crafted the restaurant’s signature dishes—the prime rib, chicken caprina (a Villa Paul original) and e to name a few—and in his second coming hopes to grow the on-site catering business. Cheryl baked the first sumptuous banana bread pudding topped with homemade caramel sauce, not to mention countless other delectables. And under Cristen’s direction, the restaurant rolled out a bar menu to encourage younger crowds and will soon offer tapas selections for its new outdoor seating area. She hopes to add live music to “The Verandah” next summer.
But the Pensas' true secrets to success aren’t just in recipes handed down for generations.
“I think we’ve been able to succeed for so many years because we’ve been out working the restaurant,” said Cheryl. “We see everything and know what's going on first hand."
On any given evening, you’re likely to find Cristen behind the hostess podium or sight Cheryl shuttling trays into the kitchen. Longtime employees, like front desk fixture Jim Patterson, have been there so long they've become extended family. Regulars know them by name, and in many cases that reciprocates. Strike up a conversation at the bar and you're sure to find some who shared special moments in one of the restaurant’s private event rooms.
“You see generations of the same families coming in, watching the kids grow up and bring in their kids—it’s very cool,” said Cristen.
To post of a review of Villa Paul, .