My Post-Restaurant Impossible Dinner at Ridley’s Italian Village

On Wednesday night, The Food Network premiered its latest episode of Restaurant Impossible, in which muscle-head chef/host Robert Irvine (far right) paid a visit to Italian Village–an aging red gravy joint in Ridley Township (Milmont Park), Delaware County, that had fallen on hard times. In the opening minutes of the show, embattled co-owner Robert Mellon (second from right), who purchased the restaurant with his brother (far left) 20 years ago, revealed to Irvine that Italian Village was $500,000 in the hole and losing $5,000 each week. Irvine sampled ten dishes from the vast, 180-item menu, deeming the food as bleh as the decor of the restaurant itself. He grimaced at the escarole soup, which he likened to dishwater. It wasn’t looking good. Then came the dead mice. After all, this is reality TV.

Irvine ripped apart one of the banquettes to find not just scores of mouse droppings but also at least three deceased specimens. “This one’s fresh,” noted Irvine, dangling the still-moist body from a trap. “I’m so embarrassed,” said Mellon, who lamely acted shocked, saying that he had been paying an exterminator good money and that the exterminator had told him there were no signs of further infestation. “He’s been pulling the wool over my eyes.” Anyone who has ever had a rodent problem in their restaurant or home knows that you don’t need an exterminator to tell you whether or not you have a mouse issue. Someone had put an air freshener inside the shell of the banquette, presumably to mask the smell of decaying carcasses.

As is the standard M.O. for Restaurant Impossible, at the heart of Italian Village’s disastrous mess was not just bad food, fecal matter and ugly carpets but also a fractured family. Robert Mellon’s brother had left the day-to-day operation four years ago, saying he had burned out, and was more or less replaced by Robert’s son, Robert Jr. (the other guy in the picture), a restaurant and hospitality school alum. But Robert Sr. had little respect for Robert Jr. and was resistant to the son’s newfangled ideas. Buy fresh, local food? Are you kidding me?! 29-year old Robert Jr. received a $100-per-week allowance and a free apartment for his troubles, which were many, while dad Mellon worked only a few hours each day, during which he paid bills. “It takes you that long?” asked Irvine. “I like to take it slow,” was the response.

Naturally, things do improve. Dad and son make up with a handshake, which Irvine turns into an uncomfortable, forced hug. The dead animals are disposed of. After dad reads every single menu item and description out loud, which takes 20 minutes, Irvine slashes the menu to a one-pager with 30 items. Using a budget of $10,000, a designer transforms Italian Village from drab and run down to Irvine’s vision of “a bright and charming Tuscan cafe.” On reveal night, the food looks great and the crowds are impressed.

I took the family to Italian Village a few weeks ago, months after the Restaurant Impossible team taped the episode. It was my first time there, so I can only base the transformation on the original version of Italian Village as it was depicted on the show. Our $100 dinner for four was OK. I found the red sauce a bit too sweet, though I realize that’s more of a personal taste issue. The calamari was, thankfully, not overcooked, but the coating fell off in clumps. Meatballs: solid. Chicken parm: good. Escarole soup: a vast improvement over dishwater. The roasted pork cannelloni (a new menu addition), was tasty but looked like a big pile of slop–hardly the pretty plate seen at the reveal dinner. Service and ambiance: no complaints. I didn’t rip apart the banquettes to look for mouse turds, so I cannot speak to the droppings. Overall, Italian Village is never going to be one of the Best Italian Restaurants In Philadelphia, but it’s not a bad option if you live in that part of Delaware County.

According to an update on the Restaurant Impossible site, Italian Village is reporting an 18% increase in sales since Irvine’s visit. But $500,000 is a whole lot of debt to pay off, and I have to wonder how many people will be turned off by the mouse issue now that the show has aired, even if Italian Village has legitimately cleaned up its act. Meanwhile, some enemy of the restaurant hijacked its website, replacing it with a “Don’t Eat At the Italian Village” site containing a series of bad reviews and forcing the Italian Village to register a new site.

Ah, the restaurant business.

Italian Village [The new website]

Restaurant Impossible [Food Network]