It should come as news to no one that one of the business segments hardest hit by the recession is the small, independent mom-and-pop restaurant. To take just two examples in the U.S. 1 area, we lost Princeton’s venerable Lahiere’s, which had been in the Christen family for 90 years, and the original, restroom-less, vintage-1947 DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies on Hudson Street in Trenton.

The Lahiere’s spot on Witherspoon Street will be reborn as Agricola in 2013 under new ownership, and those same DeLorenzo pies can be found in the family’s second location in Robbinsville. Yet in this post-recession climate — if that’s what we’re in — there exist local restaurateurs who have not only weathered the storm but are adding sibling locations, hoping to parlay one success into another. You might say they see the (wine) glass as half full.

Tino & John

Procaccini: PJ’s,

Pizza, And More

Foremost among these are the brothers Procaccini, Tino and John. Their first restaurant, the erstwhile La Borgata (later La Principessa) in the Kingston Mall shopping center, opened in 2000 when Tino, the chef, was 19 and John, the host, 22.

In recent years the brothers, who were born and raised in Princeton, have had ownership affiliations with their cousins Joe and Rich Carnevale in what is now the Princeton Sports Bar & Grill. Last year they became partners with Martin Tuchman in the iconic PJ’s Pancake House on Nassau Street.

The trio will soon be opening a second PJ’s Pancake House in Princeton Junction and a new restaurant, North End Bistro next to the Whole Earth Center in Princeton — more about those further on — but the Procaccinis say that they began to find their niche early last year with the opening of Osteria Procaccini in Kingston.

There they produce artisanal pizzas using an open-flame terra cotta oven imported from Modena, Italy. The menu also includes salads, panini, and a few antipasti. From the beginning there has often been a one-hour wait for a one of the 25 seats at their modest BYOB, so this past spring they opened a second Osteria Procaccini, at the Tree Farm Village shopping center on Route 31 in Pennington.

“After all those years, we finally figured out the formula,” Tino Procaccini says. “All natural, fresh, and organic ingredients. No high-end amenities that add to the expense for us and our customers.”

His brother adds, “The reason we’re doing well is by having a small, focused menu, using quality and local ingredients, and delivering consistency. And every penny counts, so add to that keeping inventory low and having nothing idle.”

The newer osteria boasts the same menu and the same terra cotta oven that, cooking at 850 to 900 degrees, produces pizzas in 90 seconds. Even with 70 seats, Tino reports there are sometimes waits of 40 minutes. But there is one major new feature here: a wine and beer bar.

The space, which had last been an Ideal Tile store, was brought to the brothers’ attention by their realtor, Al Toto of Commercial Property Network in Princeton. “We didn’t even know a liquor license was available. There was only one liquor license available in Hopewell/Pennington, and the landlord happened to have been holding onto it for two years.”

In Kingston, being BYOB was a big success, but, the Procaccinis reasoned, that might not work as well in Pennington, which has many pizzerias in the vicinity. They were careful to stick to their formula even with the wine list. The most expensive bottle is $22 and, says John, “We charge $3 to $5 for a glass of wine that would cost $10 elsewhere in the area. We’re making a profit, but we’re not being greedy. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Though Tino labels himself “the osteria guy” and John “the PJ’s guy,” the two make a point of being at every location. At the Pennington location they have also brought onboard a managing partner, Zissis Pappas. “He and I went to Rider together,” Tino says. “He was in the diner business in Newtown, PA, but when the economy tanked, he lost the business.” Adds John, “As we grow we find people we trust. ‘Z’ has been a good addition to our team. He’s a floater like us, and like us he’s always around.”

As previously mentioned, Martin Tuchman brought in the Procaccini brothers as partners in PJ’s Pancake House in 2011. Through his business, Princeton International Properties, Tuchman is also the landlord for the Kingston Osteria Procaccini, as he will be for the brothers’ newest project, North End Bistro in Princeton.

“People think we’re crazy to expand, but in Martin we’ve been blessed with a great landlord,” John says. “He has been a catalyst, a supporter. He allowed us to take the spaces, financing us even when we were kids without a proven track record. He wants everything to be perfect, helps to make everything perfect.”

The bistro, which is expected to open before Christmas, will offer modern American comfort food. “We envision an upscale bistro with a New York feel but with entrees in the $20 to $22 range. Home-cooked meals like meatloaf, fancy mac ’n’ cheese, pasta, short ribs — all appealing to and affordable for families and business people,” John says.

The bistro will seat 70 inside and 32 on a terrace overlooking Nassau Street. It will feature the wines of Hopewell Valley Vineyards, though customers will still be welcome to bring their own.

Among the changes the Procaccinis made at PJ’s were to install a new kitchen, paint the dining room, and replace many of the fittings and furnishings, while being sure to keep the emblematic wooden tables that have decades of initials carved deep into them. They added a pasta menu to the offerings and expanded the breakfast menu to include things like eggs Benedict.

“The reception has been really fantastic,” John says, adding that PJ’s serves 3,000 customers a week, and that adding the home-style pasta menu at night has resulted in a quadrupling of the dinner business. The owners hope to duplicate this success just across Route 1, where they are opening a second PJ’s in the newly remodeled Windsor Plaza shopping center — the former home of the Acme supermarket — at Route 571 and Alexander Road in Princeton Junction.

“Do you realize that on the other side of U.S. 1 from Princeton there is no place to get breakfast until you hit the Perkins in East Windsor?” John Procaccini asks. “Route 1 is like a moat: people don’t want to cross it if they don’t need to. Yet 25,000 commuters come through the Princeton Junction train station every day, and the PJ’s name recognition is there.”

The satellite PJ’s, which is expected to come online in January, will open at 5 a.m. to accommodate those commuters (the original opens at 7 a.m.). “It will have an outdoor patio, just like we added on Nassau Street — and that has added a huge new element to the business there,” John says.

It will also be slightly larger, seating 100 indoors and out, on the end of the newly facaded row and under a two-story cupola. If the second PJ’s Pancake House takes off, the brothers Procaccini have even grander plans in mind. “When we first took over PJ’s, the original concept was, let’s find other Ivy League towns. But then we thought that, a) we should see if a first satellite works and b) can the concept be multiplied at all. Let’s test the waters at home,” John explains.

Until 2005, John Procaccini was director of international business at the Sarnoff Corporation. “I was often traveling internationally, working 15-hour days and helping out my brother on the side,” he says. “Restaurants are not something people should do as a sideline! In 2005 I left corporate America behind.”

The brothers live right around the corner from the Kingston osteria, on back-to-back lots. John and his wife have a seven-year-old boy and four-year-old girl. Tino and his wife’s little girl is almost one. “My brother jokes that we can never have a falling out,” John says. “He keeps yelling at me, saying we need to slow it down.”

PJ’s Pancakes, 64 Princeton-Hightstown Road, West Windsor. Opening January, 2013. www.pancakes.com

North End Bistro, 354 Nassau Street, Princeton. Opening December, 2012. www.northendprinceton.com.

Iris & Owen Chen: Masa Sushi

When I wrote about Owen Chen’s sushi restaurant for the 2009 U.S. 1 Spring Dining Issue, he and his wife Iris had just opened Masa 8 in the Manors Corner Shopping Center in Lawrenceville. With that small place chugging along, the couple, who have two young children, opened another restaurant in New York, where they were living in a studio apartment.

But, says Iris Chen, “with our older child almost five, we needed more room and to find a good school, so we decided to sell our Manhattan restaurant and commit to living in Lawrenceville. I love the people here, and the school is awesome.” Meantime, regulars at Masa 8 were inquiring if the Chens would consider adding a second location, so when a spot opened up at Nassau Park Boulevard near Sam’s Club, they jumped at the chance. “We would sometimes buy supplies for the restaurant at Sam’s Club,” Chen says, “and we saw how much traffic there is.” Masa Sushi opened in West Windsor in October.

With 80 seats, the new place — situated along the row that includes Magma Pizza, Super Star East Buffet, and Hurry Chutney (a new Indian fast food restaurant) — is much larger than its older sibling. But like the original, it sports a surprisingly cool, hip vibe in a scheme of earth tones and black punctuated with a long banquette covered in white, quilted, leather-like fabric and a half curtain of strands of sparkling crystals.

The decor is the handiwork of both Chens, who aim to emulate New York style. The new restaurant features the same menu of sushi, sashimi, and Japanese cooked dishes (including hibachi), but with one important addition: all-you-can-eat sushi.

For $18.95 at lunch and $24.95 at dinner at West Windsor only, you get virtually the run of the menu’s offerings, plus a soft drink. “The economy is still low, and prices for sushi are so high, so we try to offer the best quality at the best price. We’re not making a lot of money,” Iris Chen says, but she is proud that the restaurant supports area suppliers and provides jobs for locals.

That most customers choose the all-you-can-eat option has not come as a surprise to the owners, but something else has. “Big parties seem to be very popular. We had big groups of 25 soon after we opened, mostly for lunch on Sundays. Just last week we had two — one of 20 and another of 15 — and we have another one of 20 booked this coming Sunday,” she said, going into the restaurant’s third week of operation.

Despite its big red sign, customers were slow to find Masa Sushi at first. “Nobody knew we were open the first week!” Iris Chen says. The Chens found themselves sending surplus fish over to the Lawrenceville location, which is only 15 minutes away.

Owen Chen is the lead sushi maker, though he has a few chefs who have been working with him for almost 10 years now. He got his start making sushi in New York around 1999, at what he calls “huge upscale restaurants.” He was raised close to Taiwan and came to the U.S. about 15 years ago.

The Chens’ long-term goal has been to franchise Masa Sushi, when the economy is right. So Iris Chen was surprised recently when she received a call out of the blue from a potential investor. “That was just a few days ago, and I’m in the process of trying to get more information,” she says.

Masa Sushi, 415 Nassau Park Boulevard, Princeton. 609-520-8883. www.masasushi.net.

Centro: James Karalis & Joe Immordino

Centro Grille may be a new tenant at Robbinsville’s Town Center, but behind it is a veteran of the U.S. 1 restaurant scene. For the last seven years Joe Immordino has been the chef/owner of Acacia in Lawrenceville, and will remain so. In September, he and partner James Karalis quietly opened the doors to their 200-seat restaurant in the space that had last been Poseidon and before that Santino’s Bar One.

“Technically we weren’t even open, but we were getting an average of 300 people coming in a day,” he says, sounding a bit awestruck. “The reception has been beyond our expectations.”

What was it that motivated him to take on a second restaurant — especially in this soft economy and in a space that had seen two restaurants come and go within four years? “I’m a Robbinsville resident,” he begins. “My partner and I feel Town Center represents the future of Robbinsville. We felt there was a desperate need for a family restaurant for locals and from locals. We are dedicated to Town Center and to bringing in young families.”

Both Karalis and Immordino reside in Robbinsville, Immordino for 10 years. He and his wife have three children: eight, seven, and one and a half.

Centro Grille is open seven days a week, with menus for lunch, dinner, children, Sunday brunch, wine and cocktails, and happy hour. They feature popular modern American fare, from beef brisket sliders to veggie burgers, pasta dishes, lobster mac ’n’ cheese, jumbo lump crab cakes, and filet mignon. Some dishes have proven popular from the get-go.

“Our baby back ribs have been huge,” Immordino begins, quickly adding in fish tacos, Centro meatloaf, and chicken-fried lobster tail and shrimp. At $26, that last is the most expensive item on the menu, which also includes a $10 SoHo burger that comes on a toasted brioche bun and is adorned with smoked cheddar, caramelized onion, and chipotle mayo. It is served with fries, potato salad, or steamed vegetables.

In addition to bringing over a few of the kitchen staff from Acacia, the chef/co-owner has hired culinary graduates from Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America. “We’re bringing in some of the exciting, inventive flair of Acacia but for a more traditional family-oriented restaurant,” he says of the more casual space.

A few menu items, like his sweet and sour calamari, appear on the menus of both restaurants, while others have the same main ingredient given different treatment. At Acacia, sauteed jumbo lump crab cakes are accompanied by grilled asparagus, chilled corn feta cheese salad, garlic mashed potatoes, and tomato caper remoulade. The more relaxed treatment at Centro Grille includes the same asparagus, plus tri-color couscous and scampi garlic butter. “Thanks to a great staff,” Immordino says, “I can divide my time between the two restaurants.”

Immordino plans to implement daily specials, like bottles of wine at half price or $1 oysters from the raw bar. The wine list is populated with well known names such as Kendall Jackson, Cakebread, Stags Leap, and Ravenswood. These are in addition to a rotating selection of draught beers, 11 martinis, and an equal number of cocktails.

Asked if the fact that the Robbinsville location came with a liquor license was a major factor in deciding to take over the Town Center spot, Immordino demurs. “The location is the determining factor. I simply had to take advantage of this great focal point. The bar here, well that’s just a luxury. There aren’t many in Robbinsville, and I do hope that it becomes a neighborhood hangout eventually. One good thing is that people can walk over. Couples, families, whoever.”

The newly reconfigured space seats 160 inside and an additional 30 and 40 on the patio. “We’ve kept the layout basically the same,” Immordino says, referring to Poseidon’s soaring ceilings and open kitchen, “but the look is bright, cheery, and open. It no longer separates the bar from the dining room — no more tinted glass — so there’s a nice flow.” Oysters and other raw seafood on ice are prominently displayed next to the open kitchen. The patio, facing Route 33, includes a fire pit and heaters to extend al fresco dining into cool evenings.

“Town Center is the perfect location for a family restaurant, and because the center is such an important focal point, we chose the name Centro,” Immordino explains. “James and I love the location. We respect both the previous restaurants, but the reason they failed was because the concepts were wrong. They were maybe too high end. We’re here for the long run; we coordinated our own long-term lease.”

Centro Grille, 2360 Route 33, Robbinsville. 609-208-9300. www.centrogrille.com.

More Siblings

The Procaccinis, Chens, and Immordino and Karalis are not the only restaurant veterans who are adding on venues that are independent, committed to the local economy, and attempting to provide good quality at a good price to a local clientele.

The once itinerant Nomad Pizza has added a second brick-and-mortar establishment to its existing Hopewell spot, this time in Philadelphia. Midori Japanese Cuisine, already in Highland Park and Piscataway, opened its doors a few weeks ago in the Princeton North shopping center in Montgomery.

And winter, 2012, is the promised debut, in the space that had been Ichiban, of the highly anticipated Mistral, the second Princeton collaboration from the folks behind Elements: Scott Anderson and Steve Distler. Similar to all of the above, it promises to be a more informal spot offering affordable fare –– in this case, small plates of Anderson’s “interpretive American” oeuvre, to include charceuterie and pasta.

Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.

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