On any given weekend in August, Villa Balsamo hopped.
The restaurant in an idyllic Georgian manor on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs once drew a who’s who of horse racing during the summer meet: thoroughbred owners, trainers, jockeys and the celebrities who watched them race. When the sun went down on the Saratoga Race Course, the action heated up at Villa Balsamo.
“Anybody connected,” recalls Lawrence LaBelle, a former city court judge who frequently dined at the iconic Italian eatery that was only open during racing season. “If they came to the races, they would go to Joe’s.”
That was until this year. Chains now block the entrance through the gates on Ballston Avenue, fluorescent orange tape and a “no trespassing” sign ward off visitors and a red-and-yellow “for sale” sign invites potential buyers.
For the first time in years, Villa Balsamo remained closed during the racing season. The tables are cleared from the dining room, and the basement taproom remains locked; absent a few corner service stations, a dessert display case and a few other subtle vestiges of the service industry, the restaurant Joseph Balsamo bought in 1976 seems like an empty mansion.
Up the winding drive and beneath a white portico at the rear entrance sits Balsamo. He’s dressed in work clothes on Friday, but not the type he’d ordinarily be seen in around the restaurant over the past 35-plus years.
“I’m almost 83 years old,” he says with a distinctly Italian accent when asked why he closed this summer. “That’s why. Nothing else but that.”
The ornate mansion and its 14 acres was quietly put on the market last year with an asking price of $5.25 million. It’s a steep price, but one that reflects the exclusive nature and exquisite craftsmanship of the mansion.
On Friday, Balsamo wasn’t interested in touring the impressive three-story structure or the serene ponds surrounding it. And he demured when asked to recount some of the many years he spent at his namesake restaurant.
“Ask Larry,” he says, his booming voice echoing through the empty dining room. “He’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
He speaks of LaBelle, his longtime lawyer and the one who brought his business to Saratoga Springs after a chance conversation in 1974. LaBelle was dining at Don Pepe’s Vesuvio, a restaurant Balsamo owned with John Guerriero near Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, when the proprietor asked him if there were any restaurants for sale in the Spa City.
Later that fall, Balsamo and LaBelle toured the city looking for a location where the business partners could launch their new venture, but came up empty. That was until LaBelle brought Balsamo to the former estate of Floyd Shutts, a wealthy businessman who operated knitting mills in Amsterdam and Ballston Spa during the early 20th century.
Shutts spared no expense in building his three-story home in 1930, importing the finest materials to complete its construction. The tile work alone cost more than $13,000 — a veritable fortune at the time.
“They were personally selected by Mr. Shutts, who was a very discriminating man, who had a rare and natural ability in analyzing values,” attested J. Francis Purdy, whose company installed the tiles, in a correspondence in 1951.
The mansion was once owned by Gerard King, proprietor of Newman’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake, who reportedly entertained top celebrities of the era there, including Bing Crosby. The property switched hands several times after King’s ignoble demise on a tax evasion indictment during the 1950s before falling into the lap of Chester Hotaling.
LaBelle had helped Hotaling — owner of Polar Ice and Storage in Schenectady — change the zoning on the Shutts mansion so he could establish a secluded restaurant on the property during the mid-1960s. Balsamo liked the property even though it wasn’t for sale and implored LaBelle to propose a sale. Hotaling, ever the businessman, was very receptive.
“Chester said ‘Of course it’s for sale,’ ” LaBelle says. “ ‘Everything’s for sale if the price is right.’ ”
Villa Balsamo quickly became the place to be during racing season. Those who relished the cuisine at Don Pepe’s quickly flocked to the exclusive Villa Balsamo, which didn’t take reservations and often had long waits for a table during its six weeks of operation.
“It was so jammed you could be standing in line for an hour and a half to get in,” says Labelle. “It was a top-notch Italian restaurant.”
Though the restaurant is closed, LaBelle is confident it will one day reopen with renewed vigor. He’s hoping a new owner will sweep in to continue the high-end business Balsamo started.
“I have that feeling someone is going to come along, see this, pick it up and run with it,” he says. “It’s going to happen. I really feel that way.”