Perona Farms was a dream come true that went slightly “off the wall” as far as Emil Perona was concerned. His career began in the kitchen of a London hotel at the age of 14, progressed to vaudeville stages all over the world, and culminated – perhaps – in the purchase of a 260 acre dairy farm in Andover Township, where he hoped to lead the quiet life of a dairy farmer.
But Emil’s finances couldn’t keep up with the appetites of his eleven cows. It soon became apparent that, if he was to keep the house and property, some other means of income would have to be found, so the answer to the mounting feed bills was to take in boarders.
Emil’s brother, John, owned a restaurant in Manhattan (the famous El Morocco) and helped by sending people to the country for some rest and relaxation. Emil’s own contacts through the theatrical world kept the place full, and boarders enjoyed the scenic country atmosphere and “Mother Perona’s” (Emil’s wife, as she came to be known) wonderful home cooking.
The clientele of Perona Farms grew with its fame, and the numbers who came to spend weekends and vacations, or just to partake of its culinary specialties, soon outgrew the old farmhouse. Thus Perona Farms, the restaurant, came into being, and the original house was used only for living quarters for the family and their guests.
Some famous people became boarders at Perona’s. Among them was Jack Renault, the Canadian boxing champion, who persuaded Emil to build a gymnasium and start a training camp. Thus the era of prizefighters at Perona Farms began and Luis Firpo, Bruce “Tiger” Flowers, and Mike McTigue were seen training. Joe DiMaggio and Lou Little were other prominent figures in the sports world who also found a haven of quiet rest at Perona Farms.
Emil Perona may have left show business behind him when he turned to his Sussex County farm, but the friends he had made there helped to spread his fame as an innkeeper, and many were stage personalities who shared his hospitality. A listing of these prominent figures could go on indefinitely, but among the most famous visitors have been Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, Groucho Marx, Betsy Von Furstenberg, Dorothy Lamour, Helen Hayes, Burgess Meredith, Eva Gabor, Barbara BelGeddes, Cesar Romero, John Carradine, and Henry Morgan. The spectacular figure of the late Errol Flynn was also seen at Perona Farms, as was the famed band leader, Artie Shaw.
Local people flocked to Perona Farms, too. Emil and “Mother” Perona’s daughter, Aida, helped as waitress and dishwasher, starting the family tradition of “everyone helps”. Maurice DeBergh, a young man who came to the farm as a guest, filled in and helped, too. Soon, he also became part of the restaurant family — he married Aida in 1932.
The Debergh’s daughter, Maureen, and her husband, Victor Avondoglio, continued the family traditions of excellence, creating an atmosphere where fine food and service has been their constant endeavor. Victor and Maureen expanded the restaurant in 1965 and again in 1974. Sons Mark, Wade, and Kirk, along with daughter Tracey, comprised the fourth generation. Mark, along with two members of the fifth generation, Bryant and Marley, lead the business today.
Although the restaurant now resembles a Southern European Hacienda, the name “farms” remains, reminiscent of the days when Emil’s dairy farm, the old farmhouse full of boarders, and the gymnasium were everyday life at Perona Farms. The grounds are still spacious and meticulously landscaped, and guests still enjoy the stroll across Emil’s bridge to the little island on the lake.
Perona Farms started in 1917 around the boardinghouse table. The food was good, the conversation lively, and the hosts hospitable. Nothing has changed except the size of the restaurant — family traditions remain.