Villa Rosa co-owner Elias Gonzalez, left, pizza maker Tony Renaldi, head chef Wilson Sanmartin and co-owner Edwin Leon

Villa Rosa Ristorante and Pizzeria has been a fixture in the local restaurant scene for 33 years. But if you haven’t sampled one of their pizzas or signature entrees in the last eight months or so, you may not know that Villa Rosa has undergone a change, both subtle and monumental, leading to a growing reputation as the ‘go to’ place for quality Italian cuisine.

It was eight months ago when Villa Rosa changed hands, coming under the ownership of cousins Edwin Leon and Elias Gonzales, along with one of Elias’ childhood friends Wilson Sanmartin, who serves as the head chef.

Together, with pizza chef Tony Rinaldi and cook Salvatore, they have succeeded in not only continuing the Villa Rosa legacy, but also infusing it with a passion that has made many visitors devoted customers who return time after time to sample their quality fare.

Elias, Edwin and Wilson (Elias’ best friend since they were four) grew up in Ecuador and didn’t necessarily see themselves as restaurateurs. They expected to live in their home country, but when the opportunity to come to the United States occurred in the mid ’90s, they saw possibilities for their future, whatever that turned out to be.

Thus they found themselves working their way up in the restaurant business, with Elias learning to value customers like family, and Wilson becoming a chef for some of the area’s finest restaurants, including the well known Capuano’s Italian Ristorante in West Windsor. Along the way, they soaked in all the lessons, good and bad, of running a restaurant.

When the opportunity to take over Villa Rosa came along, they were ready to make their mark and use what they’d learned over the years. The result is a commitment to excellence that is paying off, from white tablecloths in the simple yet elegant dining room, to the casual setting of the pizza restaurant.

But the real difference maker is a lunch and dinner menu that offers an exceptional variety of freshly made chicken, veal, seafood and pasta entrees, healthy and generous salads and all kinds of appetizers.

There are also 14 varieties of specialty and gourmet pizzas, a choice of freshly made paninis, cheesesteaks, hot and cold subs, soups and other quality dishes to choose from. And regardless of what your in the mood for, you can now have any item from the Villa Rosa menu delivered to enjoy in the comfort of your own home.

Still, if you ask Elias, Wilson and Edwin what is most important to their success, Elias puts it best: “We want to give back to the people of Ewing, to our customers, with food made with the best ingredients, made to order, and of the highest quality.”

As an example of what they mean, they tell a story about a popular entree on the fine dining menu, Chicken Francese, a dish that Wilson perfected over the years.

“We had a customer, Frank, who wanted Chicken Francese, and after he tried ours, he said ‘I go to other restaurants and they try to sell me more expensive dishes, but your chicken is tender, cooked to perfection, and the sauce…’”

It seems he had no words to describe it. Now Frank is a regular customer and despite Elias’ urging him to try something different, he always says, “I’ll have the Chicken Francese!”

Asked about the future, they’re refreshingly honest, saying “Human beings always want more, and were human. So we think about maybe making Villa Rosa larger, or buying another restaurant, who knows?” However, they’re also realists abou what it takes to succeed in the business, or as Elias puts it; “I hear people say ‘they own a restaurant?’ Really? Well maybe, the restaurant owns them!”

So for cousins Elias and Edwin, and their lifelong friend Wilson, at least they can honestly say that they are “owned” by something they love—Villa Rosa Ristorante and Pizzeria.

Villa Rosa Ristorante and Pizzeria, 41 Scotch Rd. Phone: (609) 882-6841.