Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 18,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Momos: Good Food, Better Business
Nova Terra, the Latin-tinged Mediterranean restaurant
of brothers Carlo and Raoul Momo in New Brunswick opens its doors
to the public on Saturday, October 21, and that’s news. Refreshing
But it’s not the real story. The real story is that by tethering good
business judgment to their love of good food the brothers now command
16 eating places. After 18 years in business, their company, T2
encompasses Teresa’s, Pizza Colore, Mediterra, the Witherspoon Bread
Co., and Nassau Bagel Co. in downtown Princeton, Momo’s Market Bakery
on Princeton-Hightstown Road in West Windsor, and the Winepress
on Route 27 in Kingston. In addition, they have links to enterprises
run by their siblings in Denver. What makes the Momos’ story notable
is not the value or variety of the T2 properties, but their vision
of the restaurant business.
With disciplined focus, the Momos survive in a field where failure
is more common than success and where financing is hard to come by.
Their attention to detail is bottomless and they spend most of their
waking time on the business. In fact, Raoul points to his long working
hours as the cause both for his divorce and for the low mileage on
Still, the Momo brothers see their properties as an investment only
in part. For them passion and sensuality are as important as business
acumen. They are sensitive to the esthetics of eating and they view
presenting food to the public as an affair of the heart. For them
the restaurant business is an art form.
We meet in the design office of T2 Ventures at 217 Nassau Street in
Princeton, a converted house. The entry is the former living room,
now virtually bare. A large front window lets in the light, creating
favorable conditions for a very large plant. A stainless steel rack
displays cutlery and china. That’s all. No seating space. No
The space implies, "Abandon pre-conceived ideas, all ye who enter
Adjacent is a conference room where directors’ chairs, the color of
bitter chocolate, surround a similarly colored conference table. The
mantelpiece shares their stunning color. Centered on the table is
a large, stark rectangular glass vase filled with fresh, strikingly
dark flowers two feet tall. Off-white walls emphasize the visual
A second look reveals that the table is covered with Formica and that
the mantelpiece bears no fireplace. "We did this on a
says Carlo. He introduces Leslie Dowling, the in-house architect and
interior-designer responsible not only for this building, but for
the design aspects of present and future T2 properties.
Her office, the former kitchen, contains the business machines and
archives that drive the conceptual life of T2 Ventures. T2’s
center on Route 27 in Kingston, with its staff of 25, takes care of
bookkeeping, payroll, and accounts for T2 Ventures’ 400 employees.
"Bigger companies than ours," says Carlo, "companies worth
a couple of hundred million dollars, have in-house architecture and
design. It’s expensive. But we considered the design element
The restaurant business is not just food and service. There’s so much
competition, you need that extra third element. That’s why we have
the stainless rack with cutlery and dishes, and the carpeting samples
and the seating catalogs."
Carlo prefers that the design expert be a member of his team rather
than someone contracted for a particular project because of his
with architects. You hire an architect," he says, "and an
ego thing is going on. You had your vision of the new restaurant,
but the architect has his own vision."
"There are sound fundamental business principles that you have
to adhere to in any business," Carlo says, "but it is flawed
to think that you can turn those principles into success in the
business. It’s not true that all you need is sound management, and
knowing how to raise money. The restaurant business is about food,
service, and ambiance. It’s really entertainment. People want to feed
their eyes and ears. If you package that idea well, you have a
for a solid business and for staying in business."
"Banks run away from restaurants," he says. "We work with
a small bank, and have gotten pretty good results with them. But we’ve
been in business since 1982 and we’re just now getting the credit
we need to continue to expand." Touching on the high rate of
failures he says, "I have yet to meet someone who has not thought
of opening restaurant." Carlo cites Princeton’s failed cybercafe
as an example of bad judgment for a restaurant startup. "Eating
is social. The computer is personal. You can’t socialize and be online
at the same time."
When Raoul arrives he cites the advice of his uncle, now an Italian
consul based in Brazil, "if a man doesn’t know which way he’s
going, no wind will be favorable." He quotes it in Italian,
the vowels. "Se un uomo non sa dove va, nesun vento sera
My uncle gave me that advice when my grandmother died in 1984. I wrote
it down on an old piece of paper. I still have it. My father lived
that with us."
"Our family has always gotten involved in things that are
buildings, food, products, things you can manufacture, things you
can feel. Yesterday, I read in the Wall Street Journal that you don’t
need a building; all you need is a laptop. I really have my doubts
about that. I feel that people need direction and roots."
The Momos maximize their chances for favorable winds by mapping out
a course specified to the last detail. "If we find a space we
really like," says Carlo, "we put in a concept that we think
would best suit the space and the market. Basically, every detail
matters — what fork, which table service, which flowers, what
color tile, what color paint." Precise specifications extend also
to the ingredients. "We’ve `spec-ed’ out the food," he says.
"We specify exactly which tomato to use, what pasta, and what
kind of olive oil."
"We grew up in the business," says Carlo, 41, the oldest in
a family consisting of four brothers and one sister; Raoul, at 39,
is the third child. Their father, who started out as a blacksmith,
was born in Chile. Their mother, Teresa, is from Bergamo, in the north
of Italy. The parents met when their father was working in Cayenne,
French Guyana, for Teresa’s father, a contractor. Teresa was cooking
for the crew. After their father’s death in 1991, their mother
in Chile. She owns a farm in Chile’s wine country and brokers wines.
The one that I tasted, a merlot with the La Serena label, was a rich
and complex potion.
After many years in the Bronx, the family moved to
County when Carlo was 11 and their mother bought a
Raoul says, "We’re a bunch of poor kids from the Bronx. My Mom
bought the deli in Rockland because in Bergen they were three times
"We would spend every weekend and summer through school at Mom’s
place," says Carlo. "She had cheeses and meats and a steam
table. There was seating for 40. There was no service. Customers would
order at the counter, and then sit down."
"The kids decided to put in pizza," Carlo remembers. "Mom
had a big Blodgett bake oven where she did all her lasagnas. We
to do pizzas out of that on Fridays and Saturdays, but we could never
do volume; it baked too slowly. A real pizza oven has a stone that
retains heat for a long time. We just created a lot of work for
The Blodgett required constant stoking." It was never replaced.
"Mother loved the old oven. It was still her place."
Carlo graduated from Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s College, now a
in 1981 with a major in international relations and economics and
began working for Alexander Proudfoot, a Scottish management
company. The company designed ways to increase efficiency in old
"I was working at tube manufacturing factories without automation
in the U.K. All day long I counted how many tubes were not meeting
standards. I did time and motion studies to work out why different
workers were producing different amounts. It was incredibly
"There were bad vibes," he says. "You had to wear a white
shirt and a tie. Basically, you were spying on these guys. You knew
some of them would lose their jobs."
While Carlo was suffering in the U.K., Raoul was a
junior, Class of ’83, studying agricultural economics. He discovered
an available store front on Easton Avenue in New Brunswick. As Carlo
tells the story, "when Raoul told me about it I was ready to
My idea was: we’ll put a couple of kids to work. The kids we put to
work were ourselves. We built everything. It looked like Mom’s place.
It wasn’t more than 1,000 square feet. Maybe 800."
The place was called Teresa’s II (named in honor of their mother’s
original restaurant). A contemporary photo shows a utilitarian deli
case in front of a home-made wall chart listing menu items. The deli
entered a second phase when it expanded into the adjacent store, put
in three dozen seats, and offered pizza. In 1992 a sit-down restaurant
down the street replaced the earlier deli/pizza. By then Carlo and
Raoul had opened other pizza shops.
"Pizza boomed in the ’80s and ’90s," Carlo says. "Part
of our plan was promoting our trademarks to their fullest potential.
We tried to franchise Pizza Colore and expanded out in Denver in 1990.
Being a small company, it was devastating to attempt national
without the resources. We were into hand-crafted things. It was
to compete with Domino’s and Pizza Hut. We got our heads handed to
us. We couldn’t copy their marketing concepts." They ended up
calling on their siblings, Venanzio, Caroline, and Anthony to take
over in Denver. Fortunately for their business and for their state
of mind, Carlo and Raoul live by the principle that if you fall down
you get up.
Abandoning the franchise business, they decided to concentrate
"The expansion of the Palmer Square Teresa’s," says Carlo,
"was a success, but there were a lot of losses along the way.
It was trial and error. We hear people say, `The Momos: everything
they touch is gold.’ It’s not true."
Rather than an innate capacity for success, the Momos have an innate
capacity for turning their failures into self-knowledge. "The
ineffectiveness of our franchise effort taught us that the game of
duplication is another game," Carlo says. "What we’ve been
able to do very well is determine what the market needs are and to
put in the concept." For instance, within a three block area in
Princeton, Pizza Colore has gourmet pizza for takeout and delivery
and Teresa’s is an Italian bistro, while Mediterra has fine dining
with Mediterranean cuisine and a tapas bar.
The brothers form a good team. "We’re very different," says
Carlo. "Raoul is more the bulldog — the lease negotiator.
He negotiates the contracts. I’m more on the wine side and gastronomy.
We complement each other. It’s hard to hire that partner that you
need." Yet, their philosophies overlap.
Without having heard what Carlo said, Raoul notes that "financial
skills alone won’t make a successful restaurant. We have a passion
for food. I couldn’t talk about putting in a furniture store. I just
don’t care about that. Perhaps we might get into the wine
The brothers agree on their strategic long-term plan. As Carlo puts
it, "we want to control our destiny through control of real
We want to become a restaurant development company. For instance,
we bought the Wine Press and its property in Kingston. We also bought
a building with a liquor license down the street. We want to cluster
two restaurants with different concepts near each other. We think
Kingston is a quaint community, waiting for something like this."
The Momos consider a liquor license virtually essential for the
business as they see it. "Not all our restaurants have liquor
licenses," says Raoul, "but we like to incorporate liquor
licenses in our full service restaurants. If people bring their own
bottle, it brings no revenue, and a restaurant can’t afford a good
staff. It matters for chefs, management, and even service. A great
waiter is not going to be in a BYOB restaurant; it affects 15 percent
of the tip."
"Getting a liquor license is primarily matter of money," says
Carlo. "The price in Princeton is obscene. But there’s always
a license owner who wants to sell. There’s one now available in
for $3 million. Typically, the license owner will throw in the junky
How do the Momos decide where to expand? "Deals come to us,"
they say. "Two or three a day. We have an antipathy toward strip
malls, but we look over whatever comes our way."
"We have life style dreams," Carlo says. "We’d like to
spend more time in Italy and in Chile. We’d like to travel. Our
for food leads us back to our roots. Italy is blessed for good eating.
Chile has a Mediterranean climate and has potential."
Maybe both men will take their children along on their travels. In
any case, they’re devoted fathers. Raoul has two boys: Gianni, five;
and Luke, three. He spends his weekends with them. The boys don’t
like Domino’s pizza. "It’s amazing how they develop a palate at
a young age," Raoul says.
Carlo’s children are Alessandra, nine; Daniela, six; and Anthony,
17 months. A widower, his wife died of a ruptured aneurysm two days
after Anthony’s birth. "I think I got my life back together again,
thanks to the family and kids, and Leslie [T2 Ventures’
designer]. As hard as it sounds for that to happen to someone with
kids, it’s probably harder if you’re alone. The one thing about kids
is they make you live in the present. Especially a newborn. You can’t
feel sorry for yourself."
Just now Carlo and Raoul’s top priority project is the opening of
New Brunswick’s Nova Terra restaurant. A crescendo of dry runs,
sessions, and a family night precede the dress rehearsal on Friday,
October 20, when Nova Terra hosts a fund-raiser for the Child Health
Institute of New Jersey, the newest basic science research institute
at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. Previous
T2 Ventures fund-raisers have benefited the Arts Council of Princeton,
and the Princeton Medical Center.
Here’s hoping Nova Terra is one of those enterprises that turns to
gold. Carlo and Raoul Momo, with their imagination, openness, and
resilience are just the kind of people whose success warms the heart.
— Elaine Strauss
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