Column

Remembering Charlotte Dale and her beloved Villa Nova

Charlotte Dale, the former owner of the Villa Nova Restaurant, died of complications due to pneumonia on June 7. She was 93.

Dale was a staple in the Newport restaurant scene for decades when she took over management of the restaurant after her husband, Allen, died in 1971.

With six children at home, Dale was faced with either entering a male-dominated industry or selling the business.

She blazed a new trail.

Dale had some business experience helping her husband with back office duties, but there was more to learn.

In time she’d turn the Villa Nova into a waterfront landmark.

“What I always appreciated about my mother was her courage, strength and ability to prove to those around her that she could indeed run the Villa Nova successfully after my Dad died in 1971,” said son Jim Dale. “Believe me, there just weren't many female fine dining restaurant owners in that era, and she proved all of the naysayers wrong.”

The Villa Nova and Dale have an interesting history.

Born on June 24, 1924, in Duluth, Minn., to Margret and Duncan Wilson Frick, Dale’s family moved to Beverly Hills in the 1930s.

Graduating from UCLA in 1946, Dale worked for a time at the William Morris Talent Agency and was a personal assistant to “F Troop” star Forrest Tucker.

The Frick Family had a summer home on Lido Isle, where Charlotte and her brother, Andrew, spent summers and holidays.

In 1948 she married Allen Dale, who had changed his name from Carlo Alfredo Di-Lisio when he came from Italy to Hollywood in the 1920s, finding work as an actor and stuntman.

He opened the Villa Nova Trattoria on Hollywood and Vine in 1933 with financial backers Charlie Chaplin and Vincente Minnelli.

According to Alison Martino’s Vintage Los Angeles website, that’s where the couple met. After marrying, they ran the restaurant together, which moved several times before settling on the Sunset Strip in 1944. The site is now the location of the Rainbow Bar and Grill, a rock star hangout. The site has an interesting article about Dale’s visit to the Rainbow when she was 90.

Villa Nova was frequented by Hollywood’s elite on the Sunset Strip. Legend has it, it’s where Marilyn Monroe had her first date with Joe DiMaggio and Minnelli proposed to Judy Garland.

In 1967 the Dales relocated their family and business to Newport, where they flourished.

But by 1992, trends and changes in the restaurant business forced Dale to make the tough decision to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy and retire.

Andy Crean bought the place in 1993. He ran it for 20 years, selling the land and business at auction in 2013.

The iconic site is now home to the Winery.

My friend Artie Dinucci worked at the Villa Nova from 1978 to 2013 and remained close with Dale. We talked this week about his special relationship with her.

Dinucci started as a waiter at the Villa Nova and then became assistant manager and, later, maître d'.

“I worked the door, and Mrs. Dale worked the register,” he said, noting that Rat Pack member Joey Bishop and singer Buddy Ebsen were among the celebrity regulars.

In its heyday the Villa Nova had lines outside every night before opening, he remembers.

Dale made everyone feel special.

“It’s was good food, and everyone knew your name,” Dinucci said.

After closing, “We’d sit, and she’d share stories about her husband and their time in Hollywood,” recalled Dinucci. “Her intellect was incredible.”

Dale was involved in her community. Through the restaurant she supported organizations like the Assessment & Treatment Service Center Coastal Orange County (ATSC), Hoag Hospital and the Newport Chamber of Commerce. She was also recognized by the National Organization of Women Business Owners.

Her generosity extended to her employees.

In 1985 Dinucci was facing a long recovery after back surgery and unable to work.

“She was my savior,” he said. “Mrs. Dale paid me for the whole year, and I never forgot her kindness.”

Dinucci says Villa Nova staffers were a “tight knit family,” which carried on after Crean bought the business.

In her later years Dale lived in a care facility close to Dinucci’s home in Costa Mesa.

The last time he visited this year, he could see her time was coming to a close.

“We sat and talked about old times, and I wanted to let her know how she affected my life in my time in need,” Dinucci said. “She will always have a special place in my heart.”

Dale and the Villa Nova remain an integral part of Newport’s fine dining history.

And for those, like me, who enjoyed family dinners, birthdays, anniversaries and countless boat parade evenings dining on the bay there, we mourn the loss of Dale and an era gone by.

But everything has a season. Dale and the Villa Nova certainly had an amazing one, leaving a legacy of wonderful memories for many.

She’s survived by her children: James, Thomas, Margaret, Laura, Andrea, Jeff and Charles, as well as many grandchildren.

Funeral services will take place at 10:30 a.m. July 29, 2995-A Airway Ave., at Saint James Anglican Church in Costa Mesa.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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