On his way to New York from Baltimore, Nick LoBianco, 42, stopped by to visit relatives near Atlantic City for what he thought would be a brief visit. He stuck around and worked for a while, then made his way to the West Coast.
After a two-year stint working in Los Angeles, prompted by a visit to relatives there, he quickly realized that South Jersey was the place he wanted to live. LoBianco then spent eight years working as a chef at Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.
When LoBianco made the decision to try something on his own a decade ago, it was the property at 7309 Ventnor Ave. that caught his eye. The building had been home to various pizza shops before he took over. Renaming it Cafe LoBianco, he drastically changed the concept and menu.
Over the years, after the successful Cafe LoBianco moved to a larger location, a string of other restaurants called that same space home. "The place has some pretty cool history to it," LoBianco says.
The latest reincarnation of LoBianco is at 20 S. Douglas Avenue in Margate. The menu is Italian in content and the restaurant is large, about 130 seats.
LoBianco says it was actually his two boys, Sage, 21, and Vince, 16, both of whom work in the family restaurants, who suggested opening a second restaurant in the original home of Cafe LoBianco in Ventnor. Salt Ayre Bistro was born.
"Salt Ayre is the kind of place we wanted to go to at the shore," LoBianco says. Casual, but done really well. "Not any pretentiousness whatsoever regarding the menu or the place, and yet a little bit different than what is already available around here."
The bistro gives the feel, the vibe and the casual comfort that people associate with the Jersey shore.
Of the hundreds of different restaurant concepts that LoBianco keeps in his head, somehow his idea for an American bistro and oyster house seemed like a natural fit. And it's a BYO, something their customers like and respond to.
Open since the end of January, LoBianco says they have already gotten a positive response to the concept.
"Our second restaurant (Salt Ayre) gave us an opportunity to pursue a concept I always wanted to do that was very different than restaurant LoBianco," LoBianco says.
Tweaking the menu constantly is what keeps it interesting and challenging for LoBianco, making each dish as great as he can, every time.
As a chef, LoBianco likes the challenge of cooking what some might call inferior cuts of meat.
"Anything you can braise low and slow is an awesome thing," LoBianco says.
His customers have been very receptive to unusual menu items like braised oxtail, something he ran as a special.
"People who have tried it, loved it," LoBianco says.
The Salt Ayre approach to specials is to always have one or two familiar components on the dish along with a protein or ingredient that is outside the norm. Since his menus tend to change over the course of a season rather than all at once, he is able to work in some new dishes, get feedback, then decide if an item should get a slot on the regular menu.
LoBianco makes his own Italian-style fennel sausage which he uses on the menu at both restaurants. At Salt Ayre, the house-made Italian sausage ($18) is served over lemon-rosemary scented cannellini beans, roasted long hots and red peppers. A dish with Tuscan roots, it is definitely different than the more typical sausage in a tomato sauce over pasta.
The pasta they do serve at Salt Ayre is Gigi's whole grain spaghetti ($16) topped with a ton of vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, roasted red peppers, basil pesto and olives, then finished with some great goat cheese for a dish that caters to their vegetarian friends but is loved by everyone who samples it.
Grilled shrimp, ($22) made with domestic Gulf shrimp tossed in olive oil and lemon with a Catalan sauce called Romesco, is made intense with flavor from roasted tomatoes and peppers, then served with Jasmine rice as a lighter but solid dish.
The popular saffron risotto is braised chicken ($19) made by bruising arborio rice until it is creamy, with spinach, sauteed crimini mushrooms, caramelized onions and shredded chicken cooked in red wine.
"Our family has a passion for the success of our restaurants," LoBianco says. "We are a very close family that enjoys being around each other."
Wife Stephanie, 42, works front of the house with son Vince. Sage has gravitated to the kitchen with his dad. Daughters Gigi, 4, and Sophie, 6, also spend as much time as they can at the restaurants.
Nick LoBianco believes their success has everything to do with the restaurant DNA they all share. And plenty of hard work.
Salt Ayre will be offering special menu nights throughout the summer. Look for Steamed Maryland blue crab and soft-shell crab nights, mussel nights with mussels prepared various ways, and special oyster nights showcasing half-price oysters from both the East and West coasts.
Local, organic products
Salt Ayre uses organic produce when possible, as well as local products. They use sustainable seafood and smaller farms for their beef and poultry. The plan is to always source food purveyors that share their philosophy of quality and sustainability.
Bouillabaisse ($25) varies with the fish that is available. It can consist of any combination of red snapper, grouper, black bass, cod, halibut or whatever fish is the freshest. It will always have shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari in addition to the fish. It begins with a broth made by braising fennel and leeks, a fish fumet with tarragon and basil, as well as a hint of saffron and orange zest. It comes served in a Staub cast iron pot with a bread croute and basil rouille.