Chez Ami ~ The House of Friends …On the Turnpike
In 1955, Edna Hogan’s Cara Villa Luncheonette Inc. was located on the Turnpike where the Cheng Du Restaurant is today. The property consisted of the Hogan house, garage, a shed and the restaurant. Additionally, an attached parcel of land on Oak Street consisting of 1.88 acres was subdivided as Lot #2 and later sold in 1957 to Cherry Hill Realty Corporation of Framingham.
Later that year the Cara Villa was sold to Thomas J. Canelli and John J. and Mary Conti of Milford while Ms. Hogan moved to Hopkinton. The restaurant was remodeled and reopened as Conti’s Italian Restaurant.
Photo Contact Lounge
In 1964 Conti’s Italian Restaurant was seized by the IRS for tax evasion, and the property was foreclosed. Later that year, the property was purchased by Dick and Joan Rogers with manager George Corbin and reopened as the Contact Lounge. However, the Contact Lounge was short lived and Manuel (Carney) Abbasscia and his wife Edna of Shrewsbury bought the restaurant in 1965 and the Chez Ami was born.
Carney was a son of Joseph and Teresa Abbascia who immigrated to Worcester from Italy. Mr. & Mrs. Abbascia ran the Blue Marlin Restaurant and the Boulevard Market on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester for many years. Carney and Edna grew up in Worcester, met on a blind date and were married two years later on the 4th of July. Carney worked at the family market for many years and served a stint in the U.S. Army as a cook before buying the Contact Lounge.
When the Abbascias bought the Contact Lounge, the property needed a complete makeover. It was a struggle for the young family to clear the property, demolish the house and garage and remove the old trailer to expand the parking lot. Then they set out to renovate the interior and expand the building by extending an addition to the rear to accommodate a new lounge area and added a second floor over the lounge. The interior was a complete renovation. The Abbascia family and friends did most of the labor while contracting out for a new kitchen and refrigeration. A new neon sign was added with the iconic Chez Ami depicting an artist paint pallet board and brush.
In the coming years Carney and Edna would raise five children, all of whom would grow up and eventually work at the Chez. It was truly a family owned and operated restaurant. Edna ran the front while Carnie ran the kitchen and the lounge. Although the girls, Gina and Lisa, went off to college they continued to work weekends and summers to help pay their way through school, while Carl, Gene and Lee stayed on to help until the restaurant was sold.
In the 1970’s the Chez began to feature nationally known TV and radio personalities to perform live on the small stage. Lou Monte, an Italian-American singer who had his own radio and TV shows, performed. Jaye P. Morgan, a recording star, entertainer and frequent guest on TV comedy and music shows. Morgan, traveled regularly performing on stage and nightclubs. Does anyone remember Luigi Alfredo Giovanni Sacco? No, me neither, but his stage name was Lou Christy, a 1960s recording star with the falsetto voice who is still performing today on the oldies circuit in the U.S and U.K. How about Pasquale Caputo, aka Pat Cooper, an Italian born stand-up comedian. He was last seen on the Howard Stern Show, Imus in the Morning and Opie and Anthony Show. Carney also booked local musicians as well as Middle Eastern belly dancers on occasion.
Photo Chez Ami 1972
In the early years the Chez offered an Italian menu with steaks and fish. Then in the late 1960s Carney began offering baked stuffed Maine lobster at $1.95 each. Carnie would get his fresh lobsters from his father’s Boulevard Market for 80 cents a pound. At that price it was a real bargain and a price hike to $2.25 and later $2.75 was justified. Needless to say business boomed and a wait was a common occurrence.
On one occasion the wait became a little to long for one very impatient customer who decided to impress his tablemates by making a public scene. He rose from his table and announced to the packed house that due to the slow service he was going across the street to get Chinese take out and return to the Chez to eat it. As he made his very boisterous return to his table, Carnie attempted to reason with him but to no avail and asked him to leave but the patron continued his rant. Carnie had no alternative but to call the police and ask that the man be removed.
As the sergeant on duty I responded, parked my cruiser behind the building and entered through the lounge area. Carney then informed me of the issue at hand, and I approached the patron after removing my hat trying to minimize the drama. When I began talking with the patron about leaving at the request of the owner, he immediately stood up and proclaimed to everyone that the Gestapo was here to take him away. He then put his hands behind him as a gesture of being handcuffed and said cuff me, cuff me for all to hear. As many watched I merely took him by the arm and escorted him to my cruiser.
During the transport, the patron carried on his rant about being poorly treated at the Chez, about him being an attorney and he knew his rights and there would be a law suit over this. This theme continued throughout the booking process and again at his trial before Judge Moosa. The judge heard testimony from Carney, Edna and myself but was not impressed by defendant’s antics and found him guilty of disorderly person in speech and behavior. Although the patron appealed his guilty finding and law suit neither one went to trial.
In the early 1980s the latest craze in fundraisers was the introduction of Las Vegas Nights. To accommodate such an event required a room of sufficient size for gaming tables, equipment and seating. A liquor license was required and a large parking lot. The Chez was the ideal location to hold such events and became an overnight success for charity fundraisers. At first they were only a couple of nights a week but then became so popular that Carney was booking the Chez for five nights a week. The earliest charities were: Shrewsbury Youth Hockey, Tris Speaker Baseball and the Calvary Retreat.
The town required a permit issued by the police chief with minor stipulations as to parking and a police officer required on duty every night. Private companies would supply gaming equipment and tables and provide professional dealers to instruct members of the charity the finer points of the different games. As a supporter of my favorite charity at the time, Region 8 K9 Association, I became a frequent dealer at the baccarat table. The charities that sponsored the events at the Chez made a lot of money in a very short time with minimal effort.
Although legal, Vegas nights became very popular throughout Worcester County but were looked upon by some as the dark side of fundraisers including District Attorney John Conti. But even though the Chez Vegas nights were very well managed and locally controlled, there was a degree of skepticism among local and state officials. Carney was also feeling the pressure and responded to the police chief’s request to scale back the operation, and Carney obliged. Carney, believing that his loyalty was to the restaurant business, began to scale back the Vegas Nights and eventually fazed them out.
In 1985 the Abbascias were ready to lock the doors of the Chez Ami one final time. Although closing was bittersweet, it became time to leave their home away from home after 20 years of the restaurant business in Westborough. Today, Carney and Edna remain in Shrewsbury, but along with their five children they are now the proud grandparents of 13 grandchildren and three great-grand children.
Gills Grill Realty Trust of Boston purchased the Chez Ami in 1985 for $950,000. Included in this sale were the original lot of the Cara Villa/Chez Ami and lot #2 bordering Oak Street that was subdivided and sold in 1957. In 1977, Mr. Abbascia bought lot 2 the 1.88 acres to return the tract to its original size.
The Westborough Gills Grill would become the fourth of the Michael Gillen chain. The building underwent extensive renovations and the menu was completely changed to accommodate an upscale client base. However, the new menu concept was not marketed properly to sustain a strong customer base and the restaurant failed. The property was foreclosed in January 1991.
In 1981 the Cheng Du II Restaurant Inc. was operating at 18 Lyman St. (Julios Plaza) and in 1992 purchased the former Gills Grille under the Cheng Du Realty Corp. for $800,000. Partners of the Tang/Fong Corp. remodeled the entire interior to reflect an oriental décor and offered a menu of Chinese-American cuisine. During this time the restaurant had a successful business here but in 2010 began an extensive renovation of the restaurant.
Photo Cheng Du 2012
In 2012 the Cheng Du reopened as three restaurants under one roof. A new cosmopolitan wine bar and lounge named 157 Bin, Akamon, a Kushiyaki Grill and the Cheng Du offering a traditional Chinese dinning.
Glenn R. Parker