“We started in 1960,” said owner R.E. Bridges. “We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary this year.” Back then, you could get a large pizza for $1, and proceeds from the jukebox raised enough money to pay the utility bill. “The only place you could buy a pizza then was Italian Village and Pizza King. Now you can buy them in grocery stores, in gas stations and other-type restaurants … there is pizza everywhere,” said Bridges.
Bridges has been in Carbondale his entire life, except for about five years when he was in California. It was during his time on the west coast that he learned the pizza business and another mainstay of Italian Village along with the food – the concept of self-service.
Customers come to the counter to place their order, and pick up their food when it is ready. The concept saves the customer money, Bridges said, in that they don’t have to tip for service, and it allows the restaurant to keep its prices reasonable and provide quicker service.
In the 60s and 70s, Italian Village was open all day, seven days a week, catering mainly to SIU students. Now, because college students have so many food options on or nearer to campus, “we are more of a family restaurant,” Bridges said.
The menu has changed, too. “We used to just have pizza, pasta, Italian beef and a salad. Now we have tortellini, fettuccine alfredo, manicotti and a seafood ravioli. We have a chicken parmesan sandwich and a white pizza that’s going over extremely well. It has Italian chicken with broccoli, mushrooms and alfredo sauce on it.”
A private party room upstairs can accommodate 30 people. A drive-up window also allows customers to take home frozen pizzas and lasagna to enjoy at home.
Bridges’ wife, Debbie, keeps the operation running on a daily basis, and handles bookkeeping, personnel and payroll. Bridges comes in every morning, getting things set up for the day, checking inventory, and is overseeing expansion plans which are beginning to take shape.
“We’re going to have outdoor dining to seat up to 50 people,” Bridges said, with covered tables, lighted fans and sidewalks leading up to the tables. Included in the outdoor plans will be a wine-tasting area where local wines can be sampled along with the food.
Why does he feel Italian Village has been able to stay in business 50 years? “We have people who went to school in the 60s come in and say, ‘it (the food) still tastes the same.’ That’s my answer… consistency.”