Metro-East Living

Who’s in the mood for some freshly made pizza?

Village Pizza is a community gathering place

Gaetano Patti talks about his restaurant Village Pizza in New Athens.
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Gaetano Patti talks about his restaurant Village Pizza in New Athens.

The green awning at Village Pizza & Deli stands out like a beacon in downtown New Athens, where few businesses have survived since the rerouting of Illinois 13 in the late ’70s.

The restaurant has become a community gathering place in the past 20 years. People travel from miles around for its gourmet pizza, pasta, salads and sandwiches, not to mention its colorful Italian-American owner, Gaetano Patti.

The 62-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard often can be found standing at the counter, chatting with customers or watching Italian news on a small TV set hooked to satellite. His “uniform” is a white apron and ball cap with the red, white and green Italian flag.

“Gaetano is a jokester,” said Amber Walsh, 32, an employee for 16 years. “He talks to everybody. He’s opinionated, but he likes to hear other people’s thoughts and ideas. He definitely enjoys the conversation.”

On this day, Gaetano was visiting with customers Bill Norton and Bob Matzenbacher. Bill, 63, of Sparta, ordered an Italian beef sandwich ($7.99 with cheese, chips and peppers). Bob went for spaghetti and meatballs ($7.25 with garlic bread).

“The meatballs are handmade,” said Bob, 62, who owns a local insurance agency. “Gaetano rolls them himself, and if you’re here when he’s making them, he’ll give you one.”

Village Pizza occupies two storefronts in a century-old brick building that formerly housed a drug store, post office, Independent Order of Odd Fellows headquarters, American Legion hall, dance ballroom and movie theater.

Upstairs, remnants of the old days include a tiny film-projection room, a piano and stage in the ballroom and a trapdoor that leads to a secret liquor compartment. Three other doors have sliding peepholes.

It was a speakeasy (during Prohibition). Al Capone came here a couple of times on his way to Florida. That’s what I’ve been told.

Gaetano Patti on Village Pizza & Deli

“It was a speakeasy (during Prohibition),” Gaetano said with a heavy Italian accent. “Al Capone came here a couple of times on his way to Florida. That’s what I’ve been told.”

Downstairs, the restaurant has 12-foot-high tin ceilings and tables with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. Walls are lined with photos from Italy and hand-painted images of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Roman Colosseum.

Chianti bottles with straw baskets are for ambiance only. Gaetano tried selling beer and wine for a year but stopped because it didn’t seem financially worthwhile.

A bookshelf displays photos of his family, including wife Fara, three sons, two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren.

“I became an American citizen last year,” Gaetano said. “My sons married American girls, and my grandkids are here, so most likely I’m going to die here.”

On Nov. 8, the restaurant’s Facebook page, maintained by son Joe, proudly announced that Gaetano had voted in a U.S. election for the first time.

The Pattis moved to the United States in 1985 and lived briefly near Fara’s sister in Pittsfield, Ill., before operating restaurants in Louisiana and Fredericktown, Mo., and Mt. Vernon, Ind. They returned to Italy for two years, then came back and opened Gaetano’s in Sparta in 1991.

Five years later, the Pattis saw an opportunity to fill a culinary void in New Athens, bought the historic Oddfellows building at 107 N. Van Buren and opened Village Pizza.

“The difference between me and the franchises is fresh ingredients,” said Gaetano, who lives in Freeburg and runs the business while Fara works as a hospital grief counselor. “Nothing is pre-cooked.”

The entire menu is good, but I really, really, really, really like the pizza. They do it right.

Bill Norton on Village Pizza & Deli

To prove his point, Gaetano walked back to the kitchen, where a stockpot of tomato sauce had been simmering for four hours. Then he opened the cooler door.

“Here’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “I use fresh ground beef, fresh sausage, real cheese, imported ham, high-quality salami. ... We make our own sauce. We make our own dough.”

“We also shred our own cheese, and we don’t even buy the anti-clumping stuff,” added Joe, 31, of Lenzburg. “We try to minimize the chemicals in our food.”

Traditional pizzas range from $7.99 (small cheese) to $26.99 (extra-large, super deluxe).

The restaurant also serves double-decker, Chicago-style stuffed pizza, with sauce, cheese and ingredients spread between two layers of dough and baked before being topped with more sauce and cheese.

“It tastes a little different than other pizzas because the ingredients simmer inside,” Gaetano said.

Village Pizza operates on a split shift, closing between lunch and dinner on weekdays and operating only in the evening on Saturdays and Sundays. A buffet is offered on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays ($7.99 lunch or $9.99 dinner).

“Every time I’ve ever been here, it’s been absolutely fantastic,” Bill Norton said. “The entire menu is good, but I really, really, really, really like the pizza. They do it right.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

At a glance

  • What: Village Pizza & Deli
  • Where: 107 N. Van Buren St. in New Athens
  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 to 10 p.m. Saturdays and 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays
  • Seating: 65
  • Carryouts: Yes
  • Handicap-accessible: Yes
  • Information: Call 618-475-2207 or visit the Facebook page