Gaspare Bernardo was just 29 years old when he opened The Villa restaurant in Santa Rosa in 1976. Last week, the longtime owner and host — now 75 — quietly shuttered the iconic hilltop restaurant, citing hiring issues and a dramatic drop in customers since COVID-19 began.
“It’s not easy, and it was one of the worst things I had to do in my life,” Bernardo said of the closure.
Hidden on a hilltop overlooking much of Bennett Valley, the restaurant was the go-to spot for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and prom dinners. In rural Sonoma County, the white-tablecloth Italian cuisine, vaulted ceilings and an expansive view were an anomaly, predating the advent of Wine Country cuisine in the 1980s.
Though The Villa’s edges had frayed in recent years, the restaurant still had a loyal following for its early-bird dinners and daily happy hours. But like hundreds of other restaurants in Sonoma County, Bernardo has recently struggled to find waitstaff and wasn’t up to managing the restaurant alone.
“The restaurant just wasn’t making it anymore. There was just too much pressure on me, and we had to call it a day,” he said. “We tried the best we could, but it’s just been a struggle. It’s so very disheartening.”
Twelve employees were laid off.
Bernardo partially blames his decision to close the restaurant for more than a year during COVID, when county health mandates severely limited indoor dining in 2020.
“We shouldn’t have closed. We should have kept the deck open and the bar and that was a mistake. We couldn’t recover,” he said.
Bernardo, who was born in Calabria, Italy, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1969, opened the restaurant with four friends: Johnnie Giacri, Tino Tocchetto, Mario Peric and Michele Chieffo. All had worked together at The Fisher restaurant in Burlingame and moved to Santa Rosa in 1976 to take over the former Hilltopper restaurant.
The opening menu featured 110 items, including seafood, veal and pasta, according to an archival Press Democrat story. Bernardo stuck to Italian-American staples — spaghetti and meatballs, linguine with clams, lasagna, ravioli and veal scaloppine — throughout the restaurant’s tenure. Caesar salad made tableside was a signature dish.
Bernardo recalls hosting hundreds of busy Mother’s Days, prom dinners, New Year’s parties and even a visit from football legend and former Oakland Raiders Coach John Madden. (In the 1970s, the Oakland Raiders’ training camp was in Santa Rosa).
“I was at The Villa for most of my life, so I saw it grow from every angle. There were a lot of celebrities here over the years,” Bernardo said.
In its nearly 50-year history, partners at The Villa came and went, but Bernardo remained constant.
John Vicini, the owner of Trecini Winery, spent 27 years working at The Villa, retiring as a partner. Though he left more than 20 years ago to start his wine brand, he said Bernardo is like a brother.
“I feel so sorry. It was my first job, and we were just young kids. It was very stressful, but we worked together 14-hour days,” he said.
There are no plans to reopen the restaurant, which was Bernardo’s lifework, leaving him unsure about his future.
“I’m very confused and have no idea what I’m going to do now. I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life, but I couldn’t do it by myself any longer,” he said.