29 March 2018

Villa Firenze (1932 - 1945)

On September 3, 1944, a massive fire started by a spark thrown from a passing locomotive and fanned by high winds swept across 500 of the 1200 acres leased by Cosimo Mancini from the Belle Mead Development Company. Destroyed in the blaze was an expensive pear orchard - including the entire season's crop - and most of a private hunting club, as all of the ground cover was burned off leading to the retreat of all of the birds. This was the first of two fires that plagued Mancini in a six-month period - the second one driving him from Hillsborough.

1 October 1941 Courier News

The Belle Mead Development Company was affiliated with New York Acreage Estates, a real estate company controlled by W. M. McElroy with holdings in Hillsborough and Montgomery Townships and elsewhere in central New Jersey. The specific property leased by Mancini was called Sunnymead (or Sunnymeade) Farms and comprised the area in eastern Hillsborough north of Amwell Road, east of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and northward almost to Falcon Road, as shown on the map below.

Detail from 1945 Hagstrom Map
Cosimo Mancini was an immigrant from Florence, Italy who came to America in 1912, eventually settling in Hillsborough. As early as 1932 he was operating a restaurant on Amwell Road called, appropriately, Villa Firenze. Mancini and his wife and family also lived in the tavern, which was in a large 12-room house with seating for 150 in the dining room.

1942 and 1943 ads from the Courier News

At the end of Prohibition in 1933-34, Villa Firenze followed all of the other eateries in Hillsborough Township by applying for a liquor license. From then until the mid-1940s Villa Firenze was a destination for diners looking to get out to the countryside. Ads from the period advise motorists to Turn Left at the Wood's Tavern Intersection and proceed to Sunnymead Farm.

1941-1943 ads from the Courier News

As the name, and the Mancinis' background would suggest, Villa Firenze specialized in Italian cuisine, and featured live music with dancing seasonally on the weekends, and on special occasions such as New Year's Eve.

On February 4, 1945, a fire which started in the boiler room of the tavern spread quickly through the house. The Montgomery Fire Department responded, but found no available water to fight the fire. The $25,000 building was a total loss, although half of the $10,000 of liquor was able to be rescued.

20 June 1952 Home News

Mancini ended up suing the railroad over the 1944 fire, and received a settlement of between $2,000 and 3,000 in 1948 - but it wasn't until June 21, 1952, that he returned to the restaurant business with the New Villa Firenze on Route 28 in Bridgewater, west of the Somerville Circle. He died in 1962, after which his wife sold the restaurant in 1963. The new owners changed the name to The Villa and ran the successful restaurant for another 32 years before closing in 1995.

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