ʽA slice of heaven’: For family-owned businesses in Watch Hill, the charm remains and so do they
Day at the beach
Editor's Note: Welcome to our annual summer series. This year, we asked readers to tell us about their favorite beach destinations within driving distance, since summer in southeastern Connecticut wouldn't be complete without a day at the beach.
Born and raised in Westerly, Rachel Intrieri has fond memories of visiting Watch Hill in the summer, to ride the carousel, get ice cream at St. Clair Annex, and go into The Candy Box. All these places still exist, and now at 32, she’s making her own mark on Bay Street.
After working at the downtown Westerly boutique Woodmansee’s in high school, her interest in fashion led her to study textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island. Intrieri dressed models for the runway at STYLEWEEK Northeast in Providence and worked in other stores.
In March, she opened RI Boutique, with a vibe she describes as “sophisticated solids, fun prints (and) easy silhouettes for all different body types.” And with two boys, ages 5 and 3, Intrieri said, “This is how I play dress-up, when I come to work every day.”
Also working out of RI Boutique is her mother-in-law, tailor Rosa Intrieri, who operated Alterations by Rosa on East Avenue for many years.
Reflecting on Watch Hill from her childhood until now, Intrieri said that “even if the shops have changed, the atmosphere hasn’t.”
In the affluent coastal village at the southwestern tip of Westerly, other business owners agree: While the reconstruction and reopening of the Ocean House hotel and some other changes have reverberated throughout the community, the vibe of Watch Hill has remained the same.
“It’s not a scene. There’s no bars and clubs. I think the vast majority of families and people coming here are family people,” said James Nicholas, the fourth-generation owner of St. Clair Annex.
For those looking just to shop or eat and not shell out $50 for day-long beach parking, there is free parking for up to two hours in the lot across from Olympia Tea Room and street parking on Bay Street. Be warned: Those who overstay the limit face fines of $150.
Real estate broker Dottie Nigrelli cites the “quaintness” of Watch Hill and how there’s something for everybody and a lot to do for different age groups. In addition to the shops and the carousel, there’s golf, tennis and sailing ― and of course East Beach and Napatree Point.
Nigrelli has been in real estate in Watch Hill for more than two decades and is the branch manager of Randall Realtors-Compass. Visitors will stop by the office to ask where Taylor Swift’s house is and when Sift Bake Shop opens for the season.
Single-family listings in Watch Hill range from $2.4 million to $32.5 million, and Randall Realtors-Compass also manages more than 100 rentals, Nigrelli said; and renters are staying for longer than they used to. When the pandemic hit, she was “taken aback” by how busy the market was, with people wanting to get out of the city.
Keeping it in the family
Increased busyness with the pandemic is also something Nicholas saw at St. Clair Annex, an ice cream and sandwich shop his family has operated since 1887, first in downtown Westerly and now in Watch Hill. Nicholas, 38, officially took over from his parents, George and Joann Nicholas, this past winter.
Before that, Nicholas said he spent his summers cooking 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He lives on Watch Hill Road, just outside the fire district and recalled watching car after car fill up town in the spring of 2020.
St. Clair Annex opened a month and a half earlier than usual that year, selling ice cream out of its sidewalk-facing takeout windows.
Serene O’Connor, an associate at Randall Realtors-Compass who previously worked at the old Ocean House, is a longtime St. Clair customer. She remembers James Nicholas’ father’s mother running the place, gesturing to a picture of the late Irene Nicholas hung on the wall behind her one day last week.
O’Connor said when she was a child in the 1950s, her parents had part ownership of a house in Misquamicut, and she would walk to Watch Hill and end up at Olympia Tea Room. The restaurant has been around since 1916.
If you stop by Jan’s Boutique, you may find multiple generations of a family working there together. The shop has existed for more than 40 years, and Romeo and Rosa Grillo bought it 16 years ago. They also own Gabrielle’s next door.
As she folded some of the many Watch Hill-branded shirts one day last week, their daughter Carmela Sammataro said her teenagers also work in the shop next door, and her husband does the bookkeeping.
Sammataro sees the same customers year after year, stopping by to get their souvenirs.
“You become a part of their vacation, a part of their joy, a part of their yearly relaxation retreat,” said Tammy Heller, who has run Tami-Anns ― a boutique that sells clothing for women, men, children and teens ― since 2000.
Heller, 56, opened the clothing boutique – which sells clothing for women, men, children and teens – following a career with American Airlines, needing to find a local career as her husband was dying from brain cancer. She opened the store Breezy’s next door 11 years, named for her daughter, who is now 26 and Tammy’s “right-hand man.”
Heller said she has always called Watch Hill “a slice of heaven, and that never changes.”