Memories of the Charcoal House and its Founding Family
By Megan Larrisey
Editor's Note: First published 2010 Sea Isle Times Endless Summer
An unidentified waitress, owner Blair Broome, and Ruth and Vito Di Vincenzo are ready to welcome customers to the Charcoal House on opening day in 1954.
“The most important thing in life is ‘la sagrada familia.’”
Echoes of this heartfelt mantra – the end Italian for “the sacred family” – can be heard in every account of the storied life of Vito Di Vincenzo, a familiar face in Townsends Inlet for a lifetime of summers.
It’s no surprise, then, that Di Vincenzo included his entire family when he purchased the legendary Charcoal House, which thrived under his direction for nearly 20 years. Through his example, Di Vincenzo demonstrated that a love for family and friends – combined with hard work and a healthy sense of humor – are the ingredients to both a prosperous business and a prosperous life.
Born in 1916 to natives of Italy, Di Vincenzo spoke only Italian until age 7. He learned English when he started school in Cincinnati, Ohio, where his parents settled after arriving at Ellis Island. The family relocated to West Philadelphia, where Di Vincenzo attended West Philadelphia High School and was inspired by one of his teachers to study yet another language – Spanish.
In the meantime, his parents had purchased a summer home on 91st Street in Townsends Inlet, a move which set in motion his lifelong connection to the Jersey Shore.
After moving on to the Pennsylvania State University, Di Vincenzo still spent his summers in Townsends Inlet, where he served as a lifeguard on the 85th Street beach. During the summer of 1940, his eyes were drawn to Ruth Schneider, a 20-year-old beauty who worked at a five-and-ten store in Wildwood and whose family owned a summer home on the same street as Di Vincenzo’s lifeguard station. In a clever maneuver, Di Vincenzo befriended Schneider’s brother, and in two years, he and Ruth were married.
Vito Di Vincenzo (left) bought the Charcoal House from his brother-in-law, Blair “Whitey” Broome, in 1956 to keep the restaurant in the family.
After serving three-and-a-half years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Di Vincenzo came home to focus on his family and his education. Di Vincenzo received his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and was certified to teach five languages: English, Spanish, Italian, Latin and French. He taught modern languages at his alma mater in State College, Pa., for two years, before moving to Drexel Hill, Pa., to be closer to his wife’s family in Philadelphia.
He then taught at Villanova University for nearly 40 years, Rutgers University and several decades at Cabrini College as part of its inaugural staff. He also pursued his doctorate at Middlebury College, which included a year of research at the University of Havana in Cuba.
“We picked up and moved to Havana for a year, which is where I completed first grade,” his daughter, Linda MacDonald, said.
MacDonald credits this trip with sparking her own love of Spanish, an interest that would later catch on with her sister, Donna Welch, as well. Inspired by their father’s insistence on the importance of education, both sisters completed college and became Spanish teachers themselves.
Di Vincenzo’s daughters weren’t the only ones who took note of his accomplishments. During December 1963, the Spanish government knighted him for excellence in culture and education, in the order of Alphonso X “El Sabio,” which means “the Learned One.”
With a professional life as rich as his, it’s hard to believe that Di Vincenzo’s teaching career only represents a portion of his legacy.
Vito Di Vincenzo keeps both the grill and the jokes running late into the night at the Charcoal House.
But a large part of that legacy stems from the memories of those who faithfully visited the Charcoal House throughout the 20 years that Di Vincenzo manned the grill. Those who walked through its doors (or, in one case, accidentally drove a car through its jalousie windows) could be sure of several things: a friendly atmosphere, a steady stream of jokes and an unbeatable cheesesteak.
This chapter of Di Vincenzo’s story began in 1954, when his brother-in-law, Blair O. Broome, built the restaurant at 8519 Pleasure Ave. By this point, Di Vincenzo had purchased his own home on 86th Street, continuing the family tradition of spending summers in Townsends Inlet.
The restaurant was dubbed the “Charcoal House” from the practice of cooking the hot dogs over real charcoal, and Broome, known as “Whitey” for his white-blond hair, hired Di Vincenzo as his cook. But Broome soon decided it wasn’t the job for him, and Di Vincenzo bought the Charcoal House in 1956 to keep it in the family.
The exterior of the Charcoal House was a curved, glass front, featuring the aforementioned jalousie windows. Upon entering the doors, patrons stepped across a floor of square, red tiles to reach the window to place their orders. A counter and stools stood along the windows, and a shorter counter and smaller stools were added for the Charcoal House’s youngest customers. There was also a jukebox in the corner, which played three records for 25 cents.
In addition to cheesesteaks, the Charcoal House featured hot dogs, hamburgers, cheeseburgers and hoagies. The drink menu included Coke, orange soda, birch beer and milkshakes.
“Hot dogs were 25 cents, hamburgers and cheeseburgers were 35 cents and cheesesteaks were 45 cents,” MacDonald said. “Hoagies were 50 cents. They were expensive!”
The Charcoal House flourished under the perfect partnership of Ruth and Vito Di Vincenzo.
And each menu item was worth every penny, as their ingredients were delivered fresh daily from local Sea Isle vendors, including Mazzella’s Bakery, which provided the rolls. Each morning, Di Vincenzo’s nephew, Jay Broome, arrived at 6 a.m. to prepare the meats and produce, and every other day, Ruth brought homemade gravy for the steak sandwiches.
Even Di Vincenzo’s father, Michele, helped slice rolls for the weekend rush. In whatever capacity they could offer, the entire family was intent on contributing, which was exactly how Di Vincenzo intended it.
“His theory for the Charcoal House was, ‘If it’s not family, it’s not going to work,’” MacDonald said. And so “the C.H.,” as the family often referred to it, was staffed by Di Vincenzo, his wife, their two daughters, their nieces and nephews and their daughters’ best friends.
“It didn’t feel like going to work, because we had so much fun,” MacDonald and Welch said identically.
But the restaurant was also hard work, especially for the man in charge.
“He worked seven nights a week, and when the daytime cook had off, he worked an entire day,” MacDonald said. “On those days, he worked Sunday night, all day Monday and Monday night.”
This was no small feat, considering the Charcoal House was open from 11-3am., not including the time spent cleaning and closing up the shop. Di Vincenzo was also often on hand during the mornings for produce deliveries.
Vito Di Vincenzo kept a close connection to Townsends Inlet throughout college by lifeguarding on 85th Street beach.
But if there was anyone who was up to the challenge, it was Di Vincenzo.
“He was an extremely vivacious, energetic person,” MacDonald said. “And through it all, he never stopped telling jokes – very corny jokes! They called him ‘king of the one liners.’”
Not to be forgotten in this endeavor is Di Vincenzo’s wife, Ruth. Together, they formed a perfect partnership, allowing the Charcoal House to flourish for as long as it did.
“My dad was very lively and gregarious, and he would bring the people in the doors,” Welch said. “And my mom, who was very methodical and organized, ran more of the business end. Between the two of them, they made it work.”
It certainly helped that their daughters were eager to pitch in as soon as the opportunity arose. For Welch, that was the summer of 1961, when she was 11.
“The first thing I was allowed to do was make the milkshake setups,” Welch said. “For 50 cents, my best girlfriend and I would go over each day and cut up Dolly Madison ice cream, put it into these big containers and then put them in the freezer.”
Welch soon graduated from milkshake preparer to full-fledged waitress, though she rarely worked alongside her sister.
“When you were young, you worked the day shift, and when you were older, you got to work the night shift,” Welch said. “So by the time I started working there, Linda worked the night shift, and by the time I worked the night shift, she was in college.”
The “day crew” worked 11am to 7pm, and the “night crew” worked 7pm to 3am, though on weekends the night shift often stretched much later. Di Vincenzo was always proud to boast that his was the only restaurant from Wildwood to Atlantic City that was open at 3am, and the bar crowds were quick to take advantage of this opportunity for a late-night meal.
“At 3 in the morning, it was jammed,” MacDonald said. “And the people were all very happy, of course, having just come from the bar!”
Villanova University professor Vito Di Vincenzo (right) receives the ORDER OF ALFONSO X, SABIO, from the Spanish Consulate, as Villanova’s president, Victor Sanchez-Mesas, and the Very Rev. John A. Klekotka, OSA, look on..
Amidst offers of gin and tonics and highballs that customers would bring from the bar for him, Di Vincenzo kept both the grill – and the jokes – running late into the night. Above all, he took care of the staff at Busch’s Seafood, never turning off the grill until he had received its order.
“The waitresses at Busch’s would eat at 3 in the afternoon when they started work,” MacDonald said, “so by 1 or 2 in the morning, they were starving. They would order six to 10 sandwiches each night.”
And they were tremendous tippers, Welch said.
These tips capped off the already generous amount of money that the Charcoal House raked in each night. The Sea Isle police would often escort Di Vincenzo home to make sure that he, and his earnings, arrived safely.
Such kindnesses reinforced the family atmosphere that Di Vincenzo so effectively fostered. In addition to MacDonald and Welch, those family members who also devoted their summers to the Charcoal House included: their cousins Tim and Suzanne Di Vincenzo, Jay Broome and his brother, Scott, Susan Barger (Mallon), Cathy Schneider (Anderson) and Chuck Greenhagen.
Many prominent Townsends Inlet names also can be found among the list of friends who were invited to work at the Charcoal House, including Richie and Betty Pedano, who worked as a prep cook and waitress during the 1950s. Jimmy Loughran, a cook, and Jinny Hankinson, a waitress, also worked during the 1950s and into the 1960s.
The 1960s including waitresses Bea Garrity, Joy Almindinger, Margie Volk, Sandy McKay, Phyllis Penston and Barb Filing, as well as cooks Paul Earl and Rodney Lockard. From the latter part of the decade and into the 1970s worked Lockard’s sister, Nancy Lockard (Toto), Debbie Scull, her cousin, Pati Scull (Jorgensen), Mary Zeitz, Mary Pat McIntyre, Sue Berko, Susan Horshock (Lindsay) and Sue Viguers – all waitresses – along with Alex Squitiere, who worked the grill.
Vito and Ruth Di Vincenzo and her sister enjoy the Townsends Inlet beach, where they first met.
During the later years, Richie and Betty Pedano’s brother, Steve Pedano, came on board as a prep cook, along with Maria Bello, the award-winning actress who was nominated for two Golden Globes. Finally, Jay and Scott’s brother, Don Broome, pitched in as a weekend warrior, as did MacDonald’s and Welch’s husbands, Chip MacDonald and Bob Welch, while dating and after marrying the Di Vincenzo daughters.
Ideally, a member of the next generation of the Di Vincenzos and Schneiders would have bought the business from Di Vincenzo when it came time for him to give it up, but he sold the restaurant during 1974, offering another family the chance to enjoy life at the Charcoal House. Though Welch laments that they were unable to keep it in the family, she prefers to remember the positives.
“It put two daughters through college, married off two daughters and enabled two daughters to have cars when they turned 21,” she said. “Above all, we had a lot of fun.”
In the end, it was all part of Di Vincenzo’s larger goal of providing for his family in such a way that would teach his daughters the value of hard work and higher education.
“My father’s teaching career spanned 52 years, and he was such an inspiration to both of his daughters,” Welch said. “Not all girls completed college back in the ’60s and ’70s, but my dad’s dream was that his daughters would be educated.”
Di Vincenzo’s dream was realized, and though he died during 1997 at the age of 81, his influence endures in the form of his daughters, who have impressed his values upon a new generation of children and students.
When he bought the Charcoal House during 1956, it was simply a restaurant. But throughout the next 20 years, through the help of family and friends – and laughter and love – the House became a home.