CARBONDALE — R. E. Bridges was a young man in his early 20s when he became owner of Italian Village.
Reflecting on the restaurant's 60 years in business, Bridges credited good employees, loyal customers and consistent service.
“We don’t cut any corners and we just hang in there,” Bridges said Tuesday morning in an interview with The Southern at a corner booth in the bar area of the restaurant he co-owns with his wife, Debbie Bridges.
Italian Village is a staple of Carbondale, one of the few local haunts to have survived decades of change. And in that way, it serves as a connection between Carbondale’s past and its present.
The walls of the restaurant are wallpapered with graffiti and autographs, photographs of famous guests, such as Walter Cronkite Jr. and Walt “Clyde” Frazier, and other Southern Illinois memorabilia. Older folks who remember hanging out there — and writing their names on the wall when they were young — now bring in their children and grandchildren to carry on the tradition.
An original menu from 1960 hangs near the entrance. That year, it cost 60 cents for an Italian beef sandwich; 90 cents for a small cheese pizza; and $1.30 for spaghetti with meat sauce.
Bridges said that when he became owner of the restaurant, “I wasn’t even hardly an adult.”
And it wasn’t easy.
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“I brought the first self-service restaurant to the southern half of Illinois when I opened this place,” he said. Orders are placed at the counter, and picked up there when a guest’s number is called. That's not an unusual setup anymore, but it was a new concept in the early 1960s. Bridges said his first customer walked out because he was miffed that no one came to his table to take his order.
Over the years, thousands more came in. In the early years, his patrons were almost exclusively students from Southern Illinois University. Sundays were especially busy because meals weren’t served that day on campus. Back then, the front door opened onto Washington Street, and young people lined up down the block, he said.
Bridges’ inspiration for the setup of Italian Village — or IV’s, as it’s known colloquially — came from a similarly styled pizza joint in Cupertino, California. He ended up there after accepting the offer of a Carbondale couple to drive them across the country to visit family in California. He had graduated from Carbondale High School in 1954 and enrolled at SIU, but didn't much care for school.
This seemed like an interesting adventure, he said. The couple was to pay for the trip, but ran out of money about halfway there, he said. “When I got there, I didn’t have any money either,” he said. “So I got a job and lived out there for four years.” He sold milk door-to-door, and worked part-time for the restaurant, soaking up everything he could learn about running a business and making dough.
In 1960, Chicago native John Dughetti opened Italian Village on property that has been in the Bridges family for generations, according to newspaper archives. Three years later, Dughetti sold the restaurant to Bridges and his father, and Bridges returned to Southern Illinois to take it over, and make it his own.
“I feel fortunate that I’m still here,” he said. He noted that the last few years have seen the closure of locally owned establishments in Carbondale, and encouraged people to remember the mom-and-pop restaurants and stores when they go out. That loyalty, he said, is how Italian Village has survived this long.
“I can’t give enough thanks to all of the customers that have supported me all of these years. A lot of people,” he said, “have been coming in forever.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Italian Village was originally opened by John Dughetti in 1960, and that Bridges took over ownership in 1963.
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