Pulling up to the Valley Inn Restaurant in Portsmouth, at first my sister and I questioned if we were in the right place. Had we accidentally stumbled upon someone’s home? A spacious farmcoast B&B? We paused to admire the 19th century architecture – the pedimeted entry, the dormers, the gabled roof, not to mention two uniquely shaped windows on the third floor bearing an uncanny resemblance to those of the Amityville Horror house. Sensing our uncertainty, a kind man – who turned out to be none other than owner Joe Occhi – guided us to the side entrance of this beloved local spot.
I won’t deny it – the notion that the restaurant may be haunted (turn to page 29 to read more about the Cornells) piqued our interest, but once inside we were charmed by the expansive dining room with its rustic touches like floral curtains, old chandeliers, kerosene lanterns, and wooden beam ceiling. We meandered through brick archways past the bar – where every seat was filled – to our table against an exposed stone wall, where twinkling lights illuminated wine bottles behind us. A beautiful view of rolling fields and ocean completes the cozy (and only slightly spooky) New England atmosphere.
We were immediately greeted by Joe’s youngest son, Michael, with a wicker basket full of warm Italian bakery-style baguettes and put in an order of stuffed quahogs and French onion soup to start things off.
As we were blowing on spoonfuls of steaming soup – served in old-fashioned brown and yellow crocks – Joe checked in to see how we were doing. He regaled us with the details of the restaurant’s long (and intriguing) history while we indulged in the delightfully rich and slightly sweet onion soup topped with melty gobs of cheese.
We learned that Joe’s father, Ennio “Mario” Occhi, purchased the property and opened the restaurant in 1957. Ennio and his father – Joe’s grandfather – were both accomplished chefs, Ennio having worked at the now-closed high-end Muenchinger-King Hotel in Newport. Ennio and his wife had emigrated from Parma, Italy just before Joe’s birth.
By then, we had dug into the quahogs, delighting in the soft and spicy stuffing, scraping up every bit of the warm and generously sized pieces of clam meat. Joe went on to share that the extension had been built by Ennio, who was apparently as skilled in design as he was at cooking. He salvaged the beams from a Newport barn, the ceiling from the floor of a basketball court at Gym 109 on the naval base, the bar top from a bowling alley at First Beach, and the built-in wine holders from clay drainage pipes.
As I ordered an entree – pasta primavera with fresh vegetables and scallops – Joe shuffled off to check in with the hostess, and then a few guests…and then a few more guests. We watched as he greeted every single table with a congenial familiarity. The restaurant was full of Portsmouth neighbors, fitting for a family-run establishment that caters to its regulars.
The pasta was delizioso, as to be expected from the next Italian chef in the Occhi family line, Mario, Joe’s oldest son. Prepared aglio e olio, the oil and garlic sauce was delicate and warming. It showcased the flavor of the perfectly seared scallops mingling with fresh asparagus, thinly sliced red peppers, mushrooms, onions, and spinach.
We followed it with something sweet: a slice of limoncello cake, which featured four layers of light and fluffy goodness, topped with whipped cream and a dusting of powdered sugar.
Sipping white wine and swaying along to the live guitar music that had just begun, our spirits were high, but we couldn’t help but ask Joe about spirits of another kind. Were the rumors true? Was the Valley Inn haunted?
Everything we’d heard – the unfortunate death of Rebecca Cornell, the ghost testimony, the murder conviction – was historically accurate, Joe said. As for the hauntings? That depends on what you believe.
Valley Inn Restaurant • 2221 West Main Road, Portsmouth • 401-847-9871
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