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Cross River Deli Owner Fights to Survive Recession

CROSS RIVER, NY - A steady stream of customers filed into Villarina’s Pasta and Deli in Cross River Monday afternoon, all of whom were treated to a hearty hello and a 1,000-watt smile from owner Willy Benito.

“I have a lot of my own regular customers,” Benito said, when he finally got a breather. “They come like four or five times a week.”

Benito is grateful to his regulars because during the economic downturn, business isn’t what it used to be. There were once four Villarina’s, but now there are two. Benito closed down his White Plains store and sold the one in Bethel, Conn. The shops in Larchmont and Cross River have survived. He used to have five full-time workers in Cross Rover; now, it’s down to two full-time and one part-time.

“The economy has hurt everyone,” Benito said. “We used to get a lot of construction workers and housekeeping people in here, but not so much anymore.”

Benito recalled that when he opened his store in the Cross River Plaza in 1998, the plaza was so busy, two or three policemen were needed to direct traffic in and out. That’s not the case any longer. On Monday, the Cross River Plaza parking lot was less than one-third full.

Nonetheless, Benito said he remains optimistic and plans to reopen some more stores as soon as possible.

“We are trying to build it back up again,” he said. “We will do it little by little, just like we did in the beginning. You never know.”

Besides his regular customers, Benito, who is originally from Peru, said the key to surviving tough economic times is to provide fresh food made daily and to treat every customer as if they were family.

“We make good stuff, fresh stuff,” he said.

A customer munching one of Villarina’s sandwich wraps at a nearby table agreed.

“I’m having the chicken Dijon wrap and it’s delicious,” said Lois Roberts, an engineer from Westport, Conn. “I was working at a house in North Salem and was on my way home looking for a place to eat – someplace that looked good and well-kept. This is great – highly recommended.”

It’s no wonder Benito’s slogan is “King of the Wraps.” The store opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 6:30 p.m. But Benito stays until 9 p.m. to make the fresh pasta dinners for the following day.

“We make fresh pasta, fresh sauce, full deli platters,” he said. “We have premade lasagna and ravioli. I also make all of my own salad dressings like Italian and Dijon – just like mama used to make. That’s what makes us different.”

Oddly enough, Benito learned to make Italian food while going to college in Venezuela, where he stayed with an Italian family.

“I love doing this because you get to meet all kinds of people,” he said. “The food business is long hours. But long hours is the only way for me to build this back up again.”

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