Keeping The Italian Spirit

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Published: December 22, 2012 @ 3:29 PM EDT

Vintage Italian restaurant owner Clelia Morabito, or ‘Claire’ as she is known to some by way of the American version of her first name, has always had the food business as part of her life, “We had the deli bakery here for years. Before then I worked with my dad and my grandparents. I used to roll meatballs with my grandfather and cook with my grandmother. It’s always been part of me.”

Her father, Angelo, was the owner of Costa’s restaurant and served customers in Roselle Park for over 50 years. Clelia herself went to college to be a teacher with a double major in Italian and was an Italian professor, even holding a Master’s degree in School Guidance Counseling. But serving food has always been her passion. She said in a sit-down interview, “It’s in my heritage. I know this was my dad’s dream and my brother’s dream when my father passed away. I just want to continue the legacy of serving authentic Italian homemade food. We wanted to create a warm Italian atmosphere.”

Clelia always remembered when she visited Italy over 20 years ago and went to a small restaurant where the woman would home-cook meals every night. She said, “That food and the experience really stayed with me and that’s what we try to do here.”

“We started September 10 and opened October 19th. We worked around the clock,” Clelia stated, recounting how things have now come full-circle with the opening Vintage Italian Restaurant and the companion deli Vintage Express being at the same address where Roma Deli & Bakery, her previous endeavor, was located. But for Clelia, there was no other option in mind, “My dad always said that Roselle Park is the best town so why not stay?”

Continuing in the family tradition, Clelia stated customers might see her mother and teenage children helping around, helping with the family business. She even hires mostly from Roselle Park to give back to the community that gave so much to her family.

As a young girl, Clelia recalls accompanying her father everywhere, even to farms when he would purchase the tomatoes and produce for his restaurant. That practice stayed with her and to this day she insists on fresh produce, meats, fish, bread, and oil for her restaurant. It has lead to Vintage Italian Restaurant having two (2) seasonal menus – one for fall/winter and the other for spring/summer.

“That’s because of the seasonal produce that we use,” she said, “Our pesto will be in the spring/summer and that’s because that’s when you have the fresh basil.”

Now, Clelia along with chef and manager Enzo Montagnino want to bring an authentic Italian atmosphere to Roselle Park dining. They want to ‘keep alive the Italian spirit’, as Enzo put it.

Chef Enzo Montagnino was born in Sicily and actually started out in a completely different field of study. He recalls his journey, “I graduated as a certified accountant. I tried to be one for a couple of years but I understood that really wasn’t my aspiration, I didn’t feel comfortable behind a desk always with a tie.”

Enzo realized his two passions in life were soccer and food. He remembers that when he was growing up his grandmother told him that he should learn how to cook because he might marry someone who may not cook too well. With that, Enzo studied cooking and learned about restaurant management and even traveled throughout Italy to study the history of Italian food. In 1986, he came to the United States on vacation but he found a job and stayed. He stated, “That’s when I realized that the concept of Italian food was a little different than what really is actual Italian food. I found out there was an American version of an Italian menu – which there’s nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong – even my mother eats and enjoys the American-style dishes but it’s not what is in Italy.”

Enzo went on to describe his style of cooking, “It’s not about being a five-star chef. I am trying to reproduce here what we eat over there so our goal is to convey the concept of an Italian restaurant where you can feel you are in Italy. This may not be a fancy place but the Italian spirit is felt when you come in our doors.”

Representing all the major regions of Italian food, Clelia and Enzo pride themselves on a menu where most of the dishes are presented and made the way they are in Italy. Their tomato sauces are even made three different ways. For both of them, the greatest compliment they receive is when customers come from Westfield, Summit, and Bayonne who are from Italy and say, “This is like my grandma’s meals.”

He added, “I use the black ink for the squid I prepare, not from a jar. Everything is fresh. If I’m out of calamari I would rather tell you I am out and give you another recommendation instead of giving you frozen calamari. I’d rather you not have it this time instead of knowing it wasn’t as good as usual.”

In keeping with his philosophy of freshness is what makes a great meal Enzo recounted that he has to convince some people to order swordfish because they tell him it is usually tough.

“How can swordfish be tough?” he thought aloud, “Unless you buy it frozen or you overcook it? Swordfish is so tender you just need to give care when cooking it. I remember the first lesson from my maestro in Italy. He said that if you have fresh fish, a good chef has only one mission, ‘Don’t destroy it. It’s good already as it is. You just need to cook to bring the flavor out. Don’t add too many spices. Just use extra virgin olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and fresh ingredients then you are done. Your mission is in doing that.’”

Chef Enzo even gave a brief history on Italian cuisine, stating that the tomato came to Europe after Columbus discovered America and that Italians were eating good food before tomato became a staple in Italian food. He commented, “Before the tomato, we were eating in Italy. Some dishes we make don’t have sauce and simply are cooked with extra virgin olive oil. It may have been created in 1215 but good food is like natural selection, and it stands the test of time.”

Fresh ingredients are the core of all meals for both Vintage Italian Restaurant and Vintage Express. Enzo summed it up by saying, “Even if you use the best pasta in the world but the tomato or clams or other ingredients aren’t fresh, you’re losing the meal. I don’t use clam sauce, I use the clam and it’s natural juice. It’s the details.”

The care given to a meal extends to their wine list which covers every region of Italy and on the menu every dish has a recommended wine, including the weekly specials.

The restaurant has a full bar with a bar menu and a Happy Hour which starts at 4:30 p.m. and offers half-price appetizers and half-price drinks. Clelia stated, “If, on Sundays, people want to come in and watch a game, we’re open for that.”

Their other location two doors down, Vintage Express, is located at 3 West Westfield Avenue and is opened for both lunch and dinner. Clelia explained the purpose of the two locations on the same block, “The reason I did that is because raising three kids – they’re now teenagers – [you] don’t always have time to make home-cooked meals. Either you’re tired from work or you’re running in between practices, games, and after-school activities. So, it’s nice to be able to pick up something healthy for the kids.”

The Express menu includes Italian heroes, wraps, Paninis, salads, burgers, hot dogs, club sandwiches, triple-decker sloppy joes, Nonna Maria’s hand-cut fries, onion rings, and a 30-item $10 menu which includes soup or salad, the entree, a side order, bread, and soda. “That’s why we did this affordable meal because, really, two people could eat this because it’s so much food.”

One notable omission is that Vintage does not have pizza on any of their menus. Clelia explained, ”We’re not a pizzeria. We’re a deli and a restaurant. We have plenty of good pizzerias in town and we’re not here to compete. We’re here to give something a little bit different, a little bit authentic.”

Clelia wanted to thank the borough for its continued support. “I would like to thank everyone in Roselle Park, especially the town officials, for being helpful in our opening process. Many people in Roselle Park have been caring towards my family over the years.”

Enzo is enthusiastic about all that Vintage can offer the borough. Known for his osso buco and stuffed artichoke, he even went as far as being willing to offer a small cooking class on TV-34. He stated that even though the meal could be made with simple ingredients, once residents see all the work that goes into buying, preparing, cooking, cleaning, they will appreciate coming and getting good food from someone who cares as much about food as they do.

In closing, Clelia stated that an authentic Italian experience is what Vintage has to offer and that it will be here, right in Roselle Park. Enzo added, “I’ll save you a trip to Italy.”

Vintage Italian restaurant opens at 4:30 p.m. except on Sundays when they open at 4 p.m. They are closed Mondays. It is located at 9 West Westfield Avenue and the phone number is (908) 445-4520. There is also a web site (link) and a Facebook page (link).

Vintage Express is located at 3 West Westfield Avenue and is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. There is free delivery as well as 10% discounts for senior citizens and students. The phone number there is (908) 445-8235.

Both locations offer online specials, online coupons, and weekly specials . Vintage also offers off-site catering for as little as $12 per plate (link).