The last time I saw Vicente Hernandez he was busy. That wasn’t unusual. He was always busy doing one thing or another at the restaurant he owned in Burlington, Prego’s Trattoria. Watching Vince at work was a lesson in what operating a locally owned restaurant is truly like. He had a hand in everything — from greeting customers and taking them to tables to pitching in when a table needed to be cleared so another group of eager customers could be seated.
And at Prego’s, there usually seems to be more customers than available space — people anxious to hear Vince proudly announce the list of that evening’s specials and order the wonderful items prepared in his kitchen. He was owner and chef as well as sometime maitre d, waiter and bartender. He was the warm face with hand extended in friendship at the front of the house and the extraordinary cook creating new versions of Italian cuisine in the back. Born in Ecuador, he learned about Italian cooking in New York City. My wife, an Italian from New York, always says food at Prego’s Trattoria tastes like home. To me, it simply tastes great, sometimes fabulous and always served with a flair.
It took me a while to walk in Prego’s after we moved to Burlington in 2007. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about it. Steve Buckley, the now retired publisher of the Burlington Times-News and a longtime friend, told me about Prego’s shortly after he hired me as editor. Steve was high on the place, which is located off Church Street in an out parcel of Holly Hill Mall that was once a Boston Market fast food place. The now unused drive-through window is still there as a reminder of what the building used to be.
Even though I know Steve to be something of a foodie, we didn’t rush there right away. My wife, as most could guess, is pretty picky about Italian food. It’s the cuisine of her heritage. Her father was born and grew up in southern Italy, coming to this country in the 1950s from the Calabria region. Her mother was also Italian but was born in America to first-generation parents. Competition over who made the best red sauce was keen even within their household.
So often on Saturdays on our way to somewhere else I would look at Prego’s and say, ‘You know, Steve loves that place. We need to try it one of these days.” Roselee would nod and reply, “I know.” After two or three years we finally decided to give it a try. We arrived on one of the few nights the restaurant wasn’t exceptionally busy. We entered and were met by Vicente Hernandez, who shook our hands and asked if we wanted a booth. Thereafter he always looked for an available booth first whenever we arrived. Also thereafter we moaned to ourselves about how long it took us to find this true gem in Burlington. We still have our regrets about it.
From the start the rewards offered by Vince to his customers were apparent. Service at Prego’s is exceptional. It’s a true family business, including Vince’s son, Albert. The staff is uncommonly friendly and often engages in small inside jokes with regular customers. Listening to Vince read his nightly specials, dishes with sometimes creative names, was not only charming but appetizing. He made it all sound so tasty, just the way he made every customer feel important. That’s a tremendous skill in any line of work, but especially in the restaurant business.
Immediately Prego’s became our favorite restaurant in not only Burlington but the region. When we visit Italian restaurants in other cities while on vacation we always try to decide if it meets the standard set by Prego’s. In our minds — and these things are always subjective — Prego’s is the best restaurant in Burlington, followed by the new restaurant downtown, Burlington Beer Works. Prego’s became among the most popular places in the city and a go-to for Elon students and their parents. It’s almost a landmark. The success of Prego’s and the Hernandez family is the embodiment of the American dream — moving to the U.S., working hard and opening a thriving business.
Those are among the many reasons this week that Prego’s loyal customers were first stunned then heartbroken to learn that Vicente Hernandez was killed on Monday (Dec. 16, 2019) when he was struck by a car on Danbrook Road near Mackintosh Drive. He was only 56. I have learned from friends of the Hernandez family that he was walking or running along the access road near his home at Lake Mackintosh , something he did often after the restaurant closed for the night. The driver has not been charged. Alcohol was not a factor. Visibility and a lack of sidewalks probably were. It’s another reason I implore the city of Burlington to do more, much more, about creating sidewalks in the many areas of the city that are sidewalk-poor.
Multiple posts on social media sites speak to just how well-liked Vicente Hernandez was and how popular Prego’s continues to be. The family has indicated they plan to continue operating the restaurant and have kept it open throughout this mourning period. His son told the Burlington Times-News that his dad would have wanted it that way. I have no doubt that’s true.
There are several memorials and services for Vicente Alberto Hernandez-Avila and you can find information here. We plan to stop by Prego’s to offer our condolences to the family and continue to support them by being loyal friends and customers. For my wife Roselee, it’s almost like the loss of a family member.
The restaurant will go on. Vince’s son Albert has learned well from his father. He also offers his hand in friendship as he greets customers new and old. I have no doubt he will keep the restaurant at the level his father would have wanted.
I will always have one more regret when it comes to Vicente and Prego’s. Last weekend when Roselee and I talked about where we were going out for dinner on Saturday we had Prego’s on the list but decided we would go there after Christmas. I will always be sad that I missed one last chance to shake his hand.