Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 1/2/18
There’s a good chance that Catherine Lombardi, an upscale restaurant staple of New Brunswick nestled next to Stage Left, brings back some homey and tasty memories for Italian-American New Jerseyans.
Outfitted with warm red walls, cozy fireplaces, real family photos, couch seating and even a gaudy lamp in an intimate space, the 11-year-old restaurant — which can seat 100 people can serves about 650 people a week — may look a lot like your grandmother’s living room.
That’s because the eatery, which boasts comfort dishes such as veal parmigiana, wild boar and ricotta ravioli and long fusilli with walnut basil pesto cream, is channeled straight from the Brooklyn home of co-owner Mark Pascal’s grandmother, Catherine Lombardi. The family matriarch was known for her Neapolitan-style home cooking and coveted Sunday dinners.
When Pascal, of Cranford, and co-owner Francis Schott of Jersey City built their first restaurant, Stage Left, in 1992 after years of working in local eateries, they frequented New York City restaurant auctions, including some in Brooklyn, to outfit their new steak restaurant since they were “as poor as can be,” Pascal said..
“If I’m in Brooklyn, my grandmother will smell me, so we needed to stop by her house and it didn’t matter what day it was, she was always cooking something since she was getting Sunday dinner ready and we would get some section of the meal,” Pascal said. “Francis said that one day, we had to open a restaurant based on her food and I said, ‘Who would want to order this at a restaurant when you get it at home?’ That’s when he informed me that many people don’t get to have that kind of food at home.”
So, 13 years later in 2005, Catherine Lombardi opened its doors named after the one-and-only Catherine Lombardi, who passed away in 1994 at 86-years-old. The restaurant honors her recipes, legendary Sunday dinner and welcoming persona.
Since Pascal’s mother, a business and typing teacher, kept meticulous records of her mother’s recipes, it was easy for Pascal and Schott to reawaken the recipes Pascal (and later, Schott) had enjoyed at Catherine Lombardi’s home for so many years. What wasn’t so easy was to find the premium ingredients and take the time to recreate homemade pastas and mozzarella, serve organic high-quality meats and gravy and eggplant parmigiana that literally take days to make.
“The reality is that there is no one who doesn’t like this food and we missed it,” Pascal said. “Italian restaurants don’t serve food the way my grandmother did — they don’t can their own tomatoes, they don’t use super-premium ingredients, they’re not making fresh pastas and you’re not finding things like wild boar ravioli on their menus. It felt like we could do that comfort food. Since the 1970s, food quality has gone down a notch but we thought it didn’t need to.”
In an age where cheap food is cheap and every eatery attempts to be cutting-edge, Catherine Lombardi does the exact opposite, which paradoxically makes it cutting-edge — the restaurant utilizes high-quality ingredients from local farms such as Garlind Farm, Dreyer’s Farms, Wightman’s Farms and Baker Farms to create nostalgic, and tasty, favorites.
“What we want is great food that isn’t splattered with butter and a cheap trick,” Schott said. “I see people wanting traditional food and they don’t need you to innovate with molecular gastronomy. They want to know that you have integrity and know the farm that it came from and that its quality. We were one of the first in the country to say, ‘Let’s apply this seasonal excellence to Italian-American cuisine like Catherine Lombardi did.’ She was in Brooklyn using this stuff long before the hipsters were there looking for artisanal cheese.”
Some of those dishes are lasagna with meat gravy ($25.95), wild boar Bolognese with pappardelle pasta ($24.95), eggplant parmigiana dried overnight served with sautéed spinach and marinara ($19.95) and garganelli with truffle cream, prosciutto and asparagus ($21.95).
However, a few dishes do sport a modern touch. Steak pizzaiola, for example, is traditionally a cheaper cut of steak covered up by sauce. At Catherine Lombardi, a flatiron steak is served as the steak pizzaiola ($31.95). The menu also features jamon Iberico de bellota, a long-cured ham made from acorn-fed Iberico pigs ($39).
Also, Catherine Lombardi didn’t make desserts. Instead, her guests — Pascal and other family members — would stop at a local bakery and pick up desserts for her Sunday dinners. Catherine Lombardi restaurant though, needed a dessert menu, so Pascal went right to the source — fellow Italian-Americans with homemade dessert recipes.
Take Mrs. Palmisano’s cookie plate ($8.95). The mother of Pascal’s Rutgers University roommate, Anthony, would make him “the best cookies every Christmas and we would be so excited to raid the tin. Nobody makes better cookies than Mrs. Palmisano.”
Alfano’s zeppolis ($8.95) also have a local connection. A Stage Left regular, Mike Alfano, passed the recipe onto Pascal from his own family.
Of course, there is a certain price point associated with high-quality and homemade fare.
“Quality costs money,” Schott said. “It’s not possible for me to put up my own tomatoes and make my own mozzarella to order for the same price that I could buy the Cisco mozzarella off the truck. I can’t make an apology for that.”
hat doesn’t mean it’s not possible, though, to get a high-quality meal with a lower bill, since portions are certainly generous.
“I think sometimes people look at my menu and say, ‘You’re so expensive,’ and I do have expensive things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come in and get a bowl of $20 pasta that can feed two people,” Schott said.
In the bustling food scene that is New Brunswick, many restaurants have come and gone, attempting to create new, innovative menus and dishes, some of which never quite come to fruition. Schott and Pascal have a different business plan for Catherine Lombardi, which Pascal considers to be a “fixed-in snapshot of cuisine.”
“As new things come along we will introduce them and as chefs come up with new combinations we will keep it interesting, but I think our goal is to be a cornerstone of this community and be a place where people can come together,” Schott said. “Keens Steakhouse in New York has been there for 100 years and I order the mutton chop every time. Catherine Lombardi, too, is going to be here for 100 years.”
Where: 3 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick
Cost Range: $19.95 to $44.95 for an entree
Contact: catherinelombardi.com, 732-296-9463