The Princeton area boasts its fair share of food and restaurant dynasties, among them Jack Morrison’s JM Group (Blue Point Grill, Witherspoon Grill, Nassau Street Seafood); Raoul and Carlo Momo’s Terra Momo (Mediterra, Eno Terra, Teresa Caffe, Terra Momo Bread, Terra Libri); and Jim Nawn’s Fenwick Hospitality Group, which in addition to Agricola and the acquisition last month of Main Street’s European Bistro & Bar and its cafe in its Kingston, has partnered with Princeton University to develop a bar and a bistro in two former Dinky train station buildings as part of the university’s ongoing arts and transit project.
But for sheer numbers alone, the Gretalia Hospitality Group has them all beat, with nine eateries and counting. If the name “Gretalia” doesn’t ring a bell, maybe “Procaccini” will. Brothers John and Tino Procaccini, lifelong area residents, have been on the restaurant scene since 2000, when they opened an Italian restaurant on Route 27 in Kingston while Tino, the chef, was still earning a business degree at Rider University.
These days the brothers and their business partner since 2011, Zissis (“Z”) Pappas, are behind these establishments: three Osterias Procaccini — their immensely popular artisan pizza restaurants in Kingston, Pennington, and Crosswicks; PJ’s Pancake Houses on Nassau Street and on Princeton-Hightstown Road in West Windsor; Trattoria Procaccini (the new name and concept for what had until a few weeks ago been their North End Bistro, situated across from the Whole Earth Center); Porta Via, an Italian sandwich and salad takeout shop on Nassau Street in the space that for many decades had housed Cox’s store; and two Dolceria gelato palaces, one in the Princeton Shopping Center and the other next to Porta Via, in the space vacated by Naked Pizza.
The changes at the former Naked Pizza/Cox’s store location are the most recent changes that the Gretalia group has brought to town. Expected to open sometime this month, the Porta Via shop will add pizza to its offerings. And people who take out from Porta Via will be able to sit down next door at Dolceria to eat it and order some gelato or coffee.
The name “Gretalia” is a portmanteau of Greek and Italian, which pays homage to the Mediterranean heritages of the partners. Z Pappas, 37, was born and raised in Bucks County, where he still lives. He represents the third generation of Pappas in the restaurant business: his Greek-American family owned restaurants in and around Philadelphia.
Pappas and the Procaccini brothers became friends while at Rider. Z and Tino, both 37, graduated in 2002; John, now 41, in 1997. During college Z continued to work in the family business, but John and Tino took it a step further by actually establishing their own restaurant before Tino had graduated. “Our business professor was like, you’re crazy!” Tino recalls, laughing. “And because of that it took me a year longer to finish.”
La Borgata was the Italian restaurant the brothers founded. (The name was later changed to La Principessa.) It was located in the strip mall in Kingston that currently houses the Pennsylvania Dutch market. Tino, who learned to cook at his mother’s knee, took charge of the kitchen, while John played host and oversaw the front of the house — roles they have maintained through the years. Although the restaurant gained a dedicated following, it closed in 2005.
A short time later John Procaccini went into partnership with his cousins from another Princeton restaurant family: the Carnevales. That family owned the Annex, the below-ground restaurant that had been a fixture on Nassau Street since 1948. The young cousins closed the Annex and in 2006 converted it into Sotto Ristorante. That Italian restaurant eventually morphed into the casual, eclectic Princeton Sports Bar & Grill in 2010, but that too closed in 2013.
The lesson that John and Tino Procaccini took away from those early years was that they wanted a very small, modest place modeled on the concept of an osteria, which they define as “an Italian village eatery where food is unassuming but authentic, served by the owner’s family.” Early in 2011, with Z Pappas as a new partner, they opened Osteria Procaccini on Main Street in Kingston, proclaiming “Pizza Antica” on its doors.
They imported a handcrafted, open-flame, gas-fired pizza oven made of terracotta bricks from Modena, Tuscany, in order to craft 12-inch thin-crust pies in about 90 seconds. “What makes our oven unique,” John says, “is the extreme high heat it generates. The terracotta dome provides natural convection and gas provides uniformity, consistency. With wood-fired ovens, you throw on a log and the temperature soars.”
Their tiny BYOB — 20 seats inside, another 30 on the back deck — soon saw lines out the door and a two-hour wait. The partners say that’s when they knew they had found their winning formula. In 2012 they opened a 72-seat version of the osteria in Pennington — their only property to date to have a full liquor license. “That has allowed us to focus on craft beers, many of them local, like River Horse,” John says. “We have eight on tap, more in bottles. Plus we have organic liquors.”
Both osterias offer the same focused menu of antipasti, salads, panini, and pizzas made with fresh, all-natural ingredients and options for whole wheat or gluten-free crust. “Tino’s Marguerita,” for example, is topped with imported mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil from the two-acre farm in Kingston that their father oversees, and sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil from Molise, the Italian region that includes Pettoranello, the city where much of Princeton’s Italian-American population hails from, including the Procaccinis.
In June, 2014, the Gretalia group’s third Osteria Procaccini debuted in Crosswicks, Burlington County, inside what for 300-years plus had been the venerable Crosswicks Inn. That property, which had started life in 1681 as a tavern, had been closed for 17 years and was given a $1 million renovation by a local consortium. When one of the owners approached the Gretalia group, John says, “We thought, wow, this is a great, great building in a great old town. And that area is developing like crazy. It’s right on the Turnpike and a lot of young folks — commuters to New York — are moving in.” That 60-seat BYOB offers wines from Hopewell Valley Vineyards by the bottle.
In the interim, the partners had, in 2011, taken over another iconic Princeton eatery: PJ’s Pancake House on Nassau Street. It was the beginning of a relationship with Princeton-based businessman Martin Tuchman, who made his money in intermodal shipping containers and whose commercial real estate holdings include several area restaurants.
The group added sidewalk seating and expanded the menu’s already extensive list of breakfast and lunch items to include Italian offerings — even gelato. The “Pasta House” portion of the PJ’s menu now features 15 Italian entrees, many of them pastas, as well as Italian starters like “Mama’s meatballs.” As a result, Z Pappas says, “the Nassau Street location is busier at night than when we took it over.”
Two years later, their second PJ’s debuted in a newly built space in the Windsor Plaza in Princeton Junction. “The business there is really climbing,” says Z. “When we first opened, there weren’t a lot of locals dining there. We extended the hours and it’s busier now.” John Procaccini says that people questioned why they would open a second PJ’s just five miles from the original. His riposte? “We would challenge them by saying that Route 1 is like a moat: people won’t cross it!” Adds Z: “Both restaurants are growing. It’s not like the one on Nassau slowed down and the other picked up.” Both PJ’s are BYOB but offer a full range of Hopewell Valley wines by the bottle, as well as set-ups to make breakfast and brunch mimosas and Bellinis.
Every year the PJ’s menu changes, John says, to “make it more healthy and to incorporate more natural ingredients, keeping it in line with what we do elsewhere.” He points out that the menu now includes gluten-free pancakes, waffles, and toast, as well as the “Healthy Corner.” The Gretalia group sources its organic, non-GMO, and gluten-free pastas from Severino, which is based in Collingswood. Tino Procaccini, who oversees the kitchens, gets sausage links from Martin’s Specialty Sausage in Mickleton, Gloucester County. Coffee is from Bucks County Coffee. “We’re just starting to get all our seafood through Nassau Street Seafood,” says Tino. “Just today we placed an order for 10 pounds of black sea bass.”
That order was for the latest Gretalia project: the transformation of North End Bistro, the eclectic eatery they opened in 2013 across from the Whole Earth Center, into Trattoria Procaccini. That switchover took place in mid-February, with the group’s website defining it as “an authentic Italian trattoria: offering a wider selection than an osteria but not as formal as a ristorante.”
John says the group initially went with the American bistro concept to add diversity to Princeton’s restaurant mix. “Take a look at the restaurants in town. They’re all the same type, either Italian or Mediterranean. We thought we’d try something a little unorthodox, a little upscale and with a lot of variety, where any couple could find something on the menu,” he explains. “So that’s what we tried. Not to say it didn’t work — because we have a very strong following — but we want our restaurants to thrive.”
Customer feedback said that the bistro was a little too upscale, the price point a little high.” Ironically, its best selling item was not its guacamole, chicken wings, burger, tacos, or mac n cheese. “It was our $19 lobster roll!” John says, shaking his head. He reports that many locals told him they missed the Italian dishes from the Principessa days. “So we’re bringing back things like our garlic knots and dipping sauce. And we can’t tell you how many times people have asked for our ‘old’ pasta dishes. I’m hoping that all the people who have been asking for them will follow through.”
Z Pappas adds that the Trattoria, which has the tagline “Natural Italian Kitchen,” will be at “a better price point to make it more welcoming for a casual, weekday meal, especially lunch.” One option on the lunch menu, for example, is a $10 create-your-own pasta dish, with choices of seven sauces and eight pastas.
The partners also agree that the upscale bistro concept didn’t jibe with the general direction the Gretalia brand is heading. “We’re trying to unify our concepts and move from a regular restaurant to all-natural, organic, and local,” John says. The group is currently looking to use more products from New Jersey farms, although in season much of their produce and just about all their herbs come from their own two-acre farm in Kingston, dubbed Tuchman Farm as homage to their ongoing relationship with Martin Tuchman.
The farm is tended by the brothers’ 76-year-old father, Constantino, who for more than 40 years has owned his own gardening service. Says John, “My father grows a hundred tomato plants, plus eggplant, kale, basil — you name it. Basically, for every restaurant we have, something is covered by the farm. For example, at PJ’s we use a lot of peppers and onions for the omelets. He grows all types of peppers. At the bistro, we used tons of kale, and my father grows beautiful kale. Parsley, zucchini, all the herbs you can name.”
The Procaccini parents, Flora and Constantino, came to Princeton from Pettoranello in 1972. “My mother was a homemaker. She cooked all day and cleaned the house and looked after what she called her three boys,” John says with a laugh, counting his father as the third boy. “He still works many hours a day and then comes home and relaxes in his recliner.” The Procaccini boys attended St. Paul’s School and Princeton High.
These days the entire clan lives side-by-side in an enclave in Kingston. “It’s like an old-time Italian family compound,” John says. “Tino is behind me, I’m in front of him, our parents are across the street.” Both John and Tino are married and each has a daughter and a son, ranging from five months to ten years. Every Sunday the entire family gathers at one o’clock for dinner at their parents’ home. “We’re all there regardless. My mother spends hours cooking. My parents won’t compromise. They won’t come to our house.”
Z Pappas, on the other hand, is single. “We live through him!” John says, laughing. Pappas playfully counters by saying that because he’s unmarried he gets saddled with working longer hours than his partners. Both sets of his grandparents came to the U.S from Greece, and his parents met here. His father’s family is from Evia, an island near Athens that in ancient times was Euboea.
As brothers with an Italian last name and a stable of Italian eateries in and around Princeton, the Procaccinis are often confused with Carlo and Raoul Momo of the Terra Momo group. That is one reason that about two years ago they turned to the Ryan James Agency of Hamilton, whose clients include Tommy Hilfiger and Elements restaurant, for branding advice.
“We’re not trying to be like the Momos at all,” John says. “They’ve done a great job branding the Terra and the Momo names. But they’re in a completely different echelon — they’re more upscale. We were all over the place with our different concepts and different signage. When we hired the PR firm, Gene Underwood made it clear that we should have one brand to tie it all together.” But the partners didn’t want “Procaccini” in the name because people might still conflate them with “Momo.” Plus, John points out, “We have Z in the mix! Greek and Italian together — so ‘Gretalia’ works out nice.”
Yet they’ve taken even that name one step farther. Get Forky! is the tagline and hashtag that currently represents the brand. (Google “Gretalia” and the website www.getforky.com comes up.) “We have the logo everywhere: on our shirts, on our buildings,” John says. “With social media today, everyone uses hashtags. So if customers are posting pictures, the Get Forky! hashtag ties them all together. It represents casual, fun, not pretentious — like eating with your hands, that type of thing.”
The large logo appears on the windows of all their restaurants. “Kids in particular are very astute,” John says. “A lot of them come to PJ’s, and then when their parents take them to our other restaurants they point out the fork to their parents. That’s exactly the brand name recognition we’re trying to accomplish.”
That fork also appears in the Princeton Shopping Center, where last year the group expanded into what had been the Gelavino gelato shop. In March, 2015, they took it over, keeping on Scott Greenberg, who was the manager, but switching out the housemade gelato for all-natural Dolce Momento Gelato imported direct from Italy.
And the fork appears at Porta Via, their Italian sandwich and salad takeout shop that opened mid-2015 on Nassau Street in the space that had for many years been Cox’s Market. When the Naked Pizza shop next door closed earlier this year, the Gretalia group snatched it up. “We do a fantastic lunch business at Porta Via,” John explains. “But it’s lagging at dinner, so the idea is we’ll bring over the osterias’ pizza to get nighttime business.”
The original plan was to demolish the adjoining wall to make one large space that would include another terracotta pizza oven as well as seating, but that project turned out to be too costly. Instead, the spaces will remain separate. The pizza oven was installed in the Porta Via space in February. The new space will offer seating as well as gelato and will take the Dolceria name. “What you’ll be able to do is order your food, bring it next door to sit down, and finish it off with some gelato and coffee,” John promises. March 1 was the expected opening date. Concurrently, the group is introducing a nine-inch version of their pizzas that will also be available at the three Osterias Procaccini.
As if these nine operations don’t keep the principals busy enough, the Gretalia enterprise, which employs about 150 workers, also has a large catering business, both on- and off-premise. They are the in-house caterers for a number of area institutions and schools, including their alma mater, St. Paul’s. John Procaccini says that “a day doesn’t go by” that the group isn’t approached about expansion or franchising. Currently they’re talking with a potential partner who wants to open 12 of their osterias in central Florida. “He’s local there,” Z explains, “so the rest of us can still keep our focus here, on what is our bread-and-butter, and on the people who are important to us.”
That would ostensibly include the next generation of Procaccinis. “My wife tells me she wouldn’t want our kids to go into the business because of the long hours and all the working holidays,” says John. “But I do want to pass the business onto them because I guarantee you that by the time they’re ready, it’s not going to be like this. I envision that at some point we’re going to franchise. That’s why we’re looking into Florida. By then there might be 50, 80, 100 units, and the job will be more corporate. My kids can use their brains to grow the business, not slaving in the kitchen or seating people all day long. That is my hope for them, if they want it.”
Gretalia Hospitality Group, 7 Tree Farm Road, Suite 101, Pennington. email@example.com. www.getforky.com
PJ’s Pancake House, 154 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-924-1353. 64 Princeton Hightstown Road, West Windsor. 609-799-0688
Osteria Procaccini, 7 Tree Farm Road, Suite 101, Pennington. 609-303-0625. 4428 Route 27, Kingston. 609-688-0007. 2 Crosswicks Chesterfield Road, Crosswicks. 609-291-5525.
Trattoria Procaccini, 354 Nassau Street, Princeton. www.trattoriaprocaccini.com
Porta Via, 180 Nassau Street, #C, Princeton. 609-924-6269. www.portaviaprinceton.com
Dolceria, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-921-9200. www.dolceriaprinceton.com