Restaurants come and restaurants go; it’s a fact of life. But some very few mysteriously live on, decade after decade, earning and keeping loyal (some would say, fanatic) customers while simultaneously keeping faith with the past and changing just enough to keep them from becoming yesterday’s news. What follows are interviews with the principals of three area restaurants that have not only survived, but thrived since the 1930s.
You’ll notice some commonalities: they each have had at least three generations of the same family behind them, each serves (mainly) traditional Italian-American fare, each maintains a loyal base of customers that is likewise composed of multi-generational families, and, not least, they have an undefinable aura or mystique about them.
Conte’s Bar & Pizza#/b#
For decades, Conte’s thin-crust pizza has been beloved by Princeton residents, often voted the best in town. It was established as a bar in 1936 by Sebastiano and Anna Conte, in a space that had been a bocce court (and their home) on Witherspoon Street. In 1950 the Contes added pizza and the die was cast. The no-frills decor has hardly changed since the 1950s and features the original long wooden bar, terrazzo flooring, carpet-wrapped pillars, and laminate table tops.
Ask Ciro Baldino what he thinks accounts for Conte’s staying power and he doesn’t hesitate. “First of all, quality,” he says. “If the quality’s good, you can’t go wrong. And once it is, don’t make unnecessary changes.” Number two on his list is low overhead. Although, he admits, “That’s getting a little more difficult what with insurance, taxes, and fees. Also, our rent has gone up. I don’t own the building — I rent from my cousins, so it’s all still in the family — but, of course, it’s not as low as it used to be. As long as you can control those two things — overhead and quality — you can go forever.”
It’s not that the menu, drinks, and decor haven’t seen changes over the years. For example, Conte’s has added gluten-free pizza.
What drives those changes that are implemented? “Most of the time it’s decided by the clientele,” Baldino says. “If someone comes in day after day after day wanting gluten free, they let me know. And if we look around and see everyone’s offering gluten free, then it’s time to do it.” Ditto for the bar program. “Back when my mother worked here, we had wines you’ll only remember if you’re of a certain age, like Almaden Chablis or Gallo. Over the years, things change and you have to go with what the clientele asks for.”
Take the addition of Peroni on tap. “Now, I don’t like to change beer very often. I’m Italian, born in Italy; I came here when I was 15. As a kid — even though in Italy anyone can drink — drinking was not my thing. And there was a so-called bar next to my house. They sold ice cream, Coke, and Birra Peroni. The first time I tasted beer it was Peroni and I thought it was disgusting. I threw it away. When the distributors came here and asked me to put Peroni on tap, I said ‘No way!’”
But Baldino kept his eyes and ears open. “I came to realize how popular Peroni was. I saw people ordering it at the golf club I belong to,” he says. “It became the most popular beer in town — against my will.” (The 65-year-old Baldino also allows that perhaps the Peroni of today may be different from what he was served as a kid in Ischia).
Although most patrons think of Conte’s as a pizza place — and admittedly the majority of its food sales are pizzas — Ciro Baldino does not. He demurs on sharing the number of pizzas his 100-seat place dishes up in a year. “Remember that Conte’s is not a pizza place,” he insists. “It’s a bar. I call it a redneck bar where we serve pizza, and the pizza became famous.”
So, he says, comparing Conte’s to other pizza restaurants doesn’t make sense. “Others make a lot more pies than we do. Some are open 24/7, and pizzas are all they sell. Conte’s? We close at 10:30 latest; sometimes 9 o’clock. Other places stay open to two, three in the morning. And Saturday and Sunday we don’t open until 4 o’clock,” he says. “Given all that, if I name a number, some guy located in a shopping center might ask, ‘Well what’s the [big deal] with Conte’s?’” Baldino points out that, while pizza comprises the majority of his sales, it’s beer, wine, and liquor that provide a higher profit margin.
Asked if he eats Conte’s pizza himself, Baldino laughs and says, “I eat it all the time, but I’m trying to cut down. Sometimes I have a small plain and get anchovies on the side, or else sausage and garlic.” Although Conte’s has added a few new toppings over the years (olives, for example), as well as sandwiches, soup, and pasta, it’s the traditional pies — plain, sausage, and pepperoni — that remain best sellers.
As ever, the sausage, meatballs, and sauce are made in house. “That that will never change,” Baldino promises. “Come to think about it, we don’t ever change the dough or the cheese, either.” The same thing applies for changes to the decor or other aspects of the operation. “Here’s my attitude,” he says. “We’re a business, and we’re in business to make money. Now if we make some changes that bring in more money, I’ll make them. Show me what it’s going to do, and I’ll do it.”
But the kitchen and dining staff does, of course, change over time. “We found that the best way to keep the quality is to hire people who know nothing about making pizza.” Baldino says. “They don’t bring any preconceived ideas with them. Sure, it’s a headache because we have to start with them from scratch, but you know they’ll never do it any other way, because they don’t know any other way.” Several employees have been at Conte’s for more than 20 years, many others for between five and 15. “Dave Kalfass, our bartender, has been here a long time,” he begins. “Maria, my brother Tony’s wife, has been her since the mid-’80s. Carlos in the kitchen — we call him our main chef — has been here a long time.”
Although Conte’s may not change much, the world around it does, including the relocation of the Medical Center of Princeton from just steps away on Witherspoon Street to Plainsboro, and the advent of artisan-style pizza, like the kind offered by Nomad Pizza, which opened a location in the Princeton Shopping Center in 2016. Baldino says these events have not had a noticeable effect.
If there is any change, it’s related, he says, to the increased rate of turnover in the population of Princeton, i.e. long-time customers moving away and new folks discovering Conte’s. “There was a time when I’d walk in here and I knew everyone who was sitting at the tables, at least by sight.” But the net result, he claims, is the same. “And,” Baldino adds, “I want my competition to do well, because if Nomad Pizza and the other pizza places in town are very busy, it means that there’s a demand for pizza.” He adds with a wink, “And since I have no problem with my quality, eventually they’ll wind up at Conte’s.”
As for the opening of AvalonBay’s residential units, which replaced the hospital, Baldino says, “We haven’t noticed an impact yet. Let’s see what happens when they’re all full and they get to know Conte’s — it takes a little time.”
Still, there are regulars whose families have been coming to Conte’s for generations. “For example, we have a bartender now, Adam Varga, whose father was a regular back when my Uncle Lou ran the place and I was a little kid. I don’t know that Adam was even born then. I’ve had people come here who tell me that their father brought me a cigar the day they were born at the hospital — and he or she is in their 20s or 30s,” he says.
The uncle that Ciro Baldino refers to is Lou Lucullo, who took over from Conte’s founders, Sebastiano and Anna Conte. Lucullo had married a Conte daughter and when the Contes retired, their son-in-law took the reins. Lucullo was Ciro Baldino’s uncle. “I started working here as a kid. I was 15, 16 years old, washing dishes, learning how to cook pizza, washing the floor — you name it.”
After graduating from Princeton High, Baldino left to attend Penn State, where he majored in Spanish and Italian. “While in college I worked at a liquor store in Pennington, where I learned everything about wine,” he says. “I went to wine school and bartending school — not because I was looking to do these jobs in the future. I just wanted to learn everything.” Eventually Baldino became a certified tax assessor and worked as a tax representative for the state of New Jersey for 12 years.
In 1982 Lou Lucullo wanted to retire, but his children didn’t want to run the business. “And I don’t blame them,” Baldino says. “My cousins own the building and lease it to us, but that’s as far as it goes.” At the time, Baldino’s mother approached him to say that his uncle wanted to know if he might be interested.
“I said no. Then my uncle approached me. At that point my brother, Tony, was working here. But my uncle and Tony, they weren’t very good together. They really didn’t hit it off. So my uncle talked to my mother and she came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you go into it with your brother? Do whatever you have to do to get it going so that whenever you want to get out, you can leave.’ At the time it sounded like a great idea,” he says, laughing.
“The first five, ten years I was going crazy working here, working there, and eventually I wanted to get out. Next thing I know, I’m still here.” Since 2004, Conte’s has had a third partner: Angela Baldino, who is married to Ciro’s and Tony’s older brother, John. “John wanted out, so I took John’s place [in the business],” she says.
Will there be a next generation of Baldinos to take charge? “Yes,” Baldino says. “I am not married and I don’t have any kids, so as far as myself is concerned, no. Tony, who is 60, is married but doesn’t have any kids. But Angela, my sister-in-law [John’s wife], has got two kids and they both have worked here. Now one is in college and one works here on a regular basis. Tony’s been talking about retiring. I have certain goals in mind. Are they willing to go the long run? When the time comes, that’s up to them.”
Conte’s Pizza & Bar, 339 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Mondays, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesdays to Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturdays 4 to 10:30 p.m., Sundays 4 to 9:30 p.m. 609-921-8041 or www.contespizzaandbar.com
Chick & Nello’s Homestead Inn#/b#
In 1939 brothers-in-law Chick Peroni and Nello Rosati bought a former speakeasy and land that in the 19th century was the Kuser family farm. In the years since it has become legendary for its traditional Roman-style Italian fare, being embraced by and embracing famous and colorful characters, eccentricities (including the lack of a printed menu until 2015), and an aversion to change.
Peter Rosati, 45, represents the third generation of his family to own and operate Chick & Nello’s, as it is affectionately called by its legions of fans. He modestly attributes the restaurant’s longevity and iconic status to, in the main, luck. “Certain things, you’re just lucky. My grandfather, Nello, was fortunate enough to secure a property that is its own entity,” Rosati says of the Kuser Road site.
“With a nice piece of land attached, we have private parking, so customers don’t have to worry about finding parking or changes to parking regulations, which are issues in, say, Trenton. Also, we are stand-alone — not part of a shopping mall or shopping center where we’d have landlords. You know what they say: location, location, location. Chick Peroni and Nello Rosati got lucky coming into this place.”
Rosati feels lucky as well with his restaurant’s clientele, many of whom have been coming for generations. “That really helps you go on. Some women were in just last week and said they were the fifth generation of their family to come here,” he says with pride. “You build a rapport; they become like family. In my own time, I’ve asked, for example, ‘How are the little girls?’ and they say, ‘One’s in her second year of college and the other just graduated.’ It’s nice. Their grandfather dined with my grandfather, and they saw each other’s kids grow up. To them, it’s like they’re going back home. We pick up the conversation from last time just as if there was no time lapse in between. You get into people’s lives. You care; it happens.
“You know, it’s a storied place with a small dining room, so you never know who you’ll sit next to or what you’ll overhear. Our customers are so welcoming that when you sit down next to someone, chances are you’ll wind up in conversation together.”
Over the years, the restaurant’s clientele has become storied, too. Influential politicians, so-called Mafiosi, prominent local families, and even celebrities like television pioneer and Trenton native Ernie Kovaks were and are among its fans. (For lively tales of Chick & Nello’s very colorful past, check out online a Hidden Trenton interview from 2009 with two generations of the Rosati family.)
Just like his grandfather, Nello, and his father, Giacomo, who just turned 86, Peter Rosati recognizes his many regulars on sight. “I know who’s coming in on which days and almost always what they’re going to eat,” he says. “Certain tables, I know what they want before they sit down. They don’t even have to order. The salads, et cetera are just brought to the table. Say, it’s Thursday night regulars. They order like they did 25 years ago. It’s fun and it makes it so it’s not work for me, exactly. It makes work enjoyable.”
Every table is greeted with a plate of marinated long green peppers and a basket of bread. Some of the traditional Italian dishes have been on the menu since the restaurant’s earliest days. Most are Roman-style, like chicken cacciatore made not with tomato sauce, but rather with white wine, olives, and rosemary.
The house specialty is Pasta Primo, a blending of garlic-and-oil sauce with the house pork ragu, which was created by onetime chef Primo DiGiacomo, who retired in 2003 after 42 years in the kitchen. (Both pasta sauces are offered separately as well, along with marinara, al fredo, amatriciana, and vongole.)
Other best-sellers include, Rosati says, “Anything off the grill: our lamb chops, veal chops, porterhouse steaks. Everything is grilled over real charcoal.” The specials of the day — roast breast of veal on Wednesday, for example — represent another big draw. “Today is Thursday, and we had exactly one order of yesterday’s breast of veal left over. A customer came in and couldn’t believe her luck that she was able to snag it on a Thursday.” Thursday’s special of roast pork may occasionally be available on Friday. “But Friday is haddock in marinara. That sells out completely,” Rosati says.
Although meals at Chick & Nello’s can end with traditional Italian desserts such as tartuffo and tiramisu, the most popular consists of three scoops of Arctic peanut butter ice cream, made in nearby Ewing. And regulars often opt for the addition of anisette to their postprandial coffee or espresso.
Even today, the kitchen staff includes at least one cook who has been there for 30-plus years, and a few who worked under Primo. “They become family, too,” Rosati says. “They grow up here; their families grow up with our families.” Rosati considers himself among the longest-tenured waitstaff, all of whom wear white shirts and black ties. Most days, the 45-year-old Rosati is at the restaurant for both lunch and dinner service. “I take customers’ orders, I deliver, I bartend — I do a little bit of everything,” he says. “After lunch I go upstairs to take care of business in the office. Then it’s back down to the floor for dinner. That’s how I’ve earned the customers’ loyalty.”
When it comes to making changes to any aspect of Chick & Nello’s, Rosati admits, “It’s walking a tightrope. We have to ask ourselves, what is it that has made us so welcoming all these years? You really have to weigh any changes you do make. You have to keep customers comfortable. It’s difficult.” The restaurant started accepting credit cards only in 2008 and never had a written menu until 2015. Before that, it was recited with no prices mentioned (although regulars didn’t need the recitation).
Two years ago, the interior got new floors and ceilings and a lick of paint “here and there,” Rosati says. But the barroom, where guests enter, and the small dining room, one step down, still feature the original wood paneling interspersed with faded wallpaper, decades-old sconces, and ancient black and white photos and prints.
For many years the restaurant was owned and operated by Nello’s son, Giacomo, and his son-in-law, Ernie Virok, who had married Giacomo’s daughter, Julie. In the natural order of things, Giacomo and Ernie had brought in their sons, Peter, who ran the front of the house, and David, who cooked. “Then a couple of years back the family split,” Peter Rosati says. “My father and I took the restaurant over from the Viroks.”
The biggest change to the operation occurred in 2015, when the two sides of founder Nello Rosati’s family split and long-time customer Lee Forrester and his son, Randy, became partners. Randy Forrester came on as chef, and the wine list was expanded to about 50 labels, mostly from Italy but also some from California. “We came back from vacation after buying out the Virok side and realized we had to do something to show that we could change,” Rosati says. “Randy [Forrester] and his father both have a vast knowledge of wine. So we wanted wines that match our great food.” The best seller these days is Antinori’s Peppoli Chianti Classico. The list includes two large-format wines and one small format (Luigi Righetti Amarone).
Randy Forrester is no longer in the kitchen. “He came on to help with the transition,” Rosati explains. “He’s a very talented chef, but it wasn’t Randy’s kind of cooking. ‘Traditional’ isn’t what he enjoys. He was limited here as to what he could do. We’re here some 78 years and we’re using my grandfather’s recipes. My grandfather taught Primo, who handed them down to David [Virok], et cetera. Randy had to cook what didn’t jazz him; it wasn’t using his talents. (Randy Forrester and his wife, Ally, are expected to open their own restaurant, Osteria Radici, in Allentown this fall.)
When asked about Chick & Nello’s bar program, Rosati laughs. “It’s not really a program. Our bar is more like a clubhouse: you know who’s going to be there what day, at what time. You know what drink to put down at the right spot at the bar,” he says. “It’s gotten really big the last two years. The camaraderie, the joking. Our bartender is a very entertaining guy, so there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of shared jokes.”
As for future changes, Peter Rosati has a vague idea of exploring outdoor dining, but that’s about all. And the next generation of the Rosati family? Peter and his wife, Felicia, have three children, ages twelve, ten, and four.
“I don’t know that I’ll encourage them, because this is a tough business; it’s hard. I get up with them in the morning and get them off to school, but then that’s it. Right now, I don’t know, although if one or more shows interest, I won’t discourage them. Of course, you don’t know what even the next five years will hold for any restaurant. Dining out is a luxury item,” he says, dependent as it is on the economy and many other factors. Chick & Nello’s customers, though, are not worried.
Chick & Nello’s Homestead Inn, 800 Kuser Road, Hamilton. Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m. Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. 609-890-9851 or www.homestead1939.com
#b#Bud Patel: Freddie’s Tavern#/b#
After more than 80 years of operation by three generations of the Urbano family, Freddie’s Tavern, the Ewing institution known for its bar scene and sprawling menu anchored by traditional Italian favorites (including Trenton-style tomato pie) was sold to entrepreneur Bud Patel in late 2015. That could have meant the end of an era, but instead Patel’s understanding of and affection for this old-school spot has bought it a new lease on life — complete with some much-needed updating to the food and its sprawling warren of rooms.
It’s tricky for any owner of a beloved, long-running, frozen-in-time restaurant to make changes. But when you’re only 32, the new owner, and the first owner who is not a family member, it could be — and most likely is — a recipe for disaster. That was the situation when Patel took over the reins late in 2015 from Freddie Urbano III, whose grandfather, the original Freddie, and whose father, Freddie Sr., had preceded him.
Patel is a proven entrepreneur with a soft spot for Ewing, where he owns three businesses and three houses. He grew up in Spotswood and graduated in 2006 from Ohio State University’s Max M. Fisher College of Business. His father was an entrepreneur before him, and he also manages those businesses. His goal at Freddie’s, he says, is to bring it back to its golden days.
Approximately a year and a half after the sale, changes have indeed been made (with more to come), and both Patel and the Urbanos are pleased. For one thing, the elder Urbano, now in his 80s, still lives in the house adjacent to the restaurant and retains a key to the restaurant. (The house was not part of the sale.) He is at Freddie’s just about every day, except when he debunks in July to spend a month at his house on the Jersey shore.
“We enjoy having him here,” Patel says. “It’s a large place, and he knows all the ins and outs, which is especially helpful during construction. He knows where the electrical breaker boxes are hidden, for example.” Urbano’s son, Freddie III, who had managed the restaurant up until the sale, has returned to his job with the New Jersey State Police. “He sometimes comes in two, three times a day, since he works right around the corner, and we talk once or twice a week. We have a very strong relationship since we both want Freddie’s to be a success.”
In his 18 months as owner Patel has renovated one dining/party room and one lobby, added a new bathroom and modernized another. And he is only halfway done. He is most proud of the new dining/party room, which had been closed for eight months during construction. It features a new HVAC system, its own bar that seats 12, an updated and lightened color scheme, and modern light fixtures and furniture. In part, Patel says, the design is meant to draw a younger crowd for the private parties that have historically comprised about 30 percent of Freddie’s business. “Every event — baby showers, funerals, retirement, birthday parties — are all locals. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the room opened 48 hours ago,” Patel said in mid-September. He had booked six parties within 24 hours. The new room can hold upwards of 80 guests and is adjacent to a second dining/party room. Patel installed steel partitions between the two, so now the rooms can open up to each other, accommodating 180 to 200 guests in total.
There are two more construction phases planned, the next to include the front lobby and another bathroom. Basically, half the building is being remodeled, with renovations planned for the second dining/party room, the front lobby, and the bar area.
But, Patel acknowledges, he will keep the charm evinced by the old barroom, including rustic wood-tone colors and an homage to the industrial legacy of Freddie’s, which got its start when Ferdinando and Anna Urbano began serving homemade meatball sandwiches to workers who were building the West Trenton rail line and station. (Ferdinando himself worked for the railroad company.)
“I am currently arranging for a professional photographer to come up with historical photos of the rail line, the old GM plant, the Trenton Makes Bridge, and other landmarks,” Patel says. The Inland Fisher Guide Plant was a General Motors facility located in West Trenton. It opened in 1938 and was in operation for 60 years.
Freddie’s menu has not changed, Patel says, although the food has. “The menu is the same as 18 months ago. We kept the same dishes but tweaked the ingredients to ‘freshen’ them.” He cites using better quality ingredients and incorporating more fresh ingredients. Patel serves as general manager and is at the restaurant 10 to 12 hours every day. He brought on Tim Boyan as chef and kitchen manager. Head bartender Ron Petersack has been at Freddie’s for 37 years, and Patel considers him the third key team member of the team.
“We work hand-in-hand,” Patel says. “Over the last 12, 13 years, many things were added to the menu and nothing taken off! Everything from $3 grilled cheese to $35 filet mignon. We’re trying to condense it,” he says, and promises that a new menu is imminent. “My philosophy? Do what we’re really good at, and Tim agrees. After 18 months, we have a solid idea of what that is.”
Prime rib is one example. “When I purchased the restaurant, the Urbano family had changed it to a boneless cut,” Patel says. “We kept that for a little while, to see if customers seemed to like it. I researched what the vast majority of our repeat customers enjoyed and it turns out they prefer bone-in. It’s a much better cut. So we introduced it a couple of months ago and have received nothing but excellent comments. The price is the same as the boneless, even though the cost [to us] is double. On Wednesdays we sell it at $18.95; the king cut version at $24.95. A lot of people come in for that.” Other perennial favorites include the French dip and French onion soup.
The new team also changed the pizza. “Freddie’s had been known for our bar pies. But as the sale was going through, a lot wasn’t being monitored in the kitchen,” he says. “The original chef was teaching others, who taught others, and the entire process became diluted. So the food wasn’t consistent over that two-to-three-year period when the sale was in the works. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but it has to be consistent and made with better ingredients.”
Most of Freddie’s long-time kitchen staff stayed on for the first 12 months. “Then some retired, and others I had to lay off during the construction, since 35 percent of our business was closed off. It was tough,” Patel says. Same with the serving staff. “Some of the older staff moved out of state,” he says, but others he had to let go. “If you work at the same place for 40 years, it’s hard for you to accept change. You have special relationships with the customers, too. They become more like friends; you see each other socially. After a year I had to make hard decisions.”
He says that he and Boyan do not micromanage. “But I’m here all the time to make things right. The operation needed changes everywhere; otherwise it would have spiraled out of control. It has been long enough now, the changes are subtle, and I’m proud of our staff. They see the potential of what Freddie’s can be.”
There’s no denying that Freddie’s key customer base was aging out, so many of Patel’s changes and plans are geared toward attracting a younger (if not exactly young) demographic. To that end, he introduced live music on Friday and Saturday nights. “The previous owner had hosted live bands occasionally,” he says. “So I did a test run, got a good turnout, and a light bulb went off. I started with Friday nights.”
One day, in walked Rich Scanella, Bon Jovi’s drummer, who is from Trenton and also teaches at Rider University. “He said he wanted to do Friday nights!” After that, Patel received calls from such well-known area artists as Paul Plumeri and Ernie White. “So now it’s every Friday and Saturday night from 8 to 11,” Patel says. He estimates that currently 60 percent of the crowd they draw is older; 40 percent younger. “They come together and it’s an energetic fusion.”
He believes that esthetics are key to drawing the younger generation (such as himself). “The place was cosmetically outdated,” he acknowledges. “If I walk into a restaurant that’s old, I get a different impression. I’m trying to change the esthetic.”
He is also trying to draw a younger crowd with a menu of specialty cocktails, including a from-scratch Blood Mary. “A new list is coming out shortly. I’m working with a mixologist who has developed seven or so unique cocktails using, among other things, fresh ingredients from the kitchen.”
But Patel isn’t turning his back on Freddie’s long-term customers. “Freddie’s is almost like a second home for many West Trenton residents,” he says. “There’s a group of 30 to 40 regulars. When I see them they tell me they’ve been coming here for anywhere from 20 to 60 years. One couple was here celebrating their 75th anniversary. Turns out he proposed to her in the front lobby. Our regulars are loyal, and many are well known, such as the Prunetti family.”
Bud Patel includes his own family among multi-generational Freddie’s fans. “My grandmother used to come here. I want to continue that trend. I want the next generation to be based on our current customers’ kids and grandkids. I can market to newcomers in the area, but I want families — two, three generations. That’s what Freddie’s has always been about.”
Freddie’s Tavern, 12 Railroad Avenue, Ewing. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday noon to midnight. 609-882-9845 or www.freddiestavern1933.com/menu