Billed as “A Salute to Bernie’s 50 Years of Cooking,” comedian Jeff Pirrami is appearing at Bernie Foglia’s Villa Foglia at 1133 Wyoming Ave., Exeter, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 7. The self-styled “Fat Rat Bastard,” Pirrami is a regular at the Burlesque Show at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City. This weekend’s show includes red and white pizza, a dinner buffet, coffee and dessert before the show, from 6 to 7 p.m. Cost is $29.95 with full cash bar.
The road to Bernie’s 50 years in business began in November 1966, when Foglia got out of the Navy, where he worked at the comm center at a nuclear submarine base in Spain. After discharge, he came back to Exeter, where he had grown up, the son of Bernardo, a miner, and Teresa, a garment worker.
He had some restaurant experience, having worked, among other places, at the Bishop Savoy Restaurant in the Strand Hotel in Atlantic City during the summers between his junior and senior years at the old Exeter High, from where he graduated in 1958.
The legendary Pete Be gave Bernie a shot at Pete’s Pizza on Wyoming Avenue, a pizza, hoagie, burger and hot dogs joint, with counter service and a Happy Days teen hangout vibe.
In May 1967, Be, owing to health problems, asked Foglia to lease Pete’s.
“We struck a deal, I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was around $375 a month. The rest is history. Here I am 50 years later still cooking.”
Still cooking, yes, but now at his third Exeter location at the Villa Foglia Restaurant at 1133 Wyoming Ave.
Here’s how he got there. While Foglia leased the kitchen at the original Pete’s Pizza, owner Be and partner Vincent Pagnotti built an addition where they booked local bands and where the Buoys were a popular draw. After five years, Be sold the building to A&A, which turned it into an auto parts store. Foglia moved a quarter mile north on the Ave and leased a building at what is now the site of Pizza L’Oven. By 1981, Foglia was ready to buy his own place.
“I heard this place was up for sale. It had a reputation for quality homemade food and a liquor license. And here I am. It will be 36 years in July.”
The move to Villa Foglia wasn’t only to a new physical place, it was to a new food place, as well. He talked about transitioning from a pizza and hoagie spot, to a full menu restaurant.
“It had always been a dinner place. I continued it in the same tradition. I mean, I made a few little tweaks, personalized some of the recipes, but kept it basically the same as it had been since 1925.”
His signature dish is chicken calabrese and variations, such as veal, sausage, pork chop, shrimp and haddock.
Though he is 76, Foglia is still putting in long hours making homemade pasta, lasagna and deserts. His wife, Karen, 59, helps him keep Villa Foglia going. They have two daughters, Maria Francesca and Teresa, Wyoming Area classes of ’03 and ’07. They live in the Bay Area of California.
For a time, Villa Foglia catered at the Kirby Center for stars including Franke Avalon, Styx, Natalie Merchant, Earth Wind and Fire, Paul Anka, Trisha Yearwood and B.B. King, whose autographed photos line the top of the front wall, along with those of the late Gene Guarilia and former MLB pitcher Bob Duliba.
Over the years, celebrities have dined at Villa Foglia, including Danny Grimaldi, who played twins Philly and Patsy Parisi on the HBO series “The Sopranos,” and who Foglia counts as a friend. Grimaldi and Foglia have something in common. Both are 5-foot-4.
For Foglia, his short stature almost set him on a different career path long ago. Laughing, Foglia tells the story.
“I had an uncle, Ernest ‘Red’ Renzetti. He was an ex-jockey and professional horse player. He wanted me to be a jockey. He said, ‘Bernie I can get into Maryland Jockey Guild. You’re the right size, you’re strong. But then I put on weight and became a pork chop instead of a jockey.”