John Papale knows all about the restaurant business first hand. After all, he began working in his family-owned restaurant in Mays Landing at age 12. He had to take the bus home to Hammonton from school, then take another bus to Egg Harbor City to work at their pizzeria each day.
Papale still lives in Hammonton, but his daily commute now takes him to his newest restaurant, Messina’s Pizza & Pasta, on the Black Horse Pike in Pleasantville.
“I had a pizzeria in Mays Landing, Hammonton and Egg Harbor City,” Papale says.
After all those years, like many workers in the restaurant business, Papale decided he needed to take a break.
It turned into a 10-year sabbatical.
Working as an assistant general manager at a convenience store in Pleasantville for about five years, he became familiar with the people in the area. That’s when Papale made his next move.
“I really got my head wrapped around exactly what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to present myself this time around,” Papale says.
His on-the-job training at the family restaurant served him well, but his father also flew a chef in from Italy to train him for two years. Papale says he learned about dinner portions and about all the specialties that he still does today.
“All the marsala sauces, the rosa sauces, the scampi,” Papale says. “I got a real, authentic teaching on all of the Italian dishes.”
The difference between the classic Italian dishes and the typical Italian-American versions were a matter of style, with the Italian versions being “more pure, more clean.”
In culinary terms, the ingredients had to be simple and fresh, and the chef had to let the ingredients speak for themselves.
“When I say authentic, I cut my own spaghetti, I roll my own tortellini, I stuff my own ravioli, I make my own gnocchi; I do everything from scratch,” Papale says. “I’m hoping to bring in the crowds that want real Italian food.”
Papale has a few appetizers that he considers his signature dishes.
Fried Messina ($7.95) is a lightly breaded piece of eggplant and a lightly breaded and fried tomato slice, centered on a plate with fresh mozzarella, a balsamic glaze and olive oil that Papale calls “absolutely fantastic.”
Hot wings ($6.95) are seasoned, floured, fried, then tossed in a pan with the house-made sauce with a touch of honey.
“My wing sauce is untouched,” Papale says. “I (also) make an incredible pasta e fagioli everyday.”
For Papale, it’s all about the ingredients. Burgers are made by hand and char-grilled.
All of his beef is certified black angus; he even makes the meatballs in-house.
“(This isn’t) something you would expect in a normal pizzeria,” Papale says.
Papale still does everything old school — making his own dough, cooking his own sauce and grating his own cheese, grating parmigiana cheese from a big wheel that he breaks down himself.
Papale uses a 30-year-old Blodgett oven for his pizza, with the hard stone surface that holds the temperature.
While the classic, pepperoni and sausage pies, still sell very well, Papale also offers a few specialty and gourmet pizza.
Michele ($16/$19) is topped with grilled shrimp, diced tomato, mozzarella and a creamy seafood sauce. Papale describes it as having shrimp scampi on a pizza and suggests squeezing a lemon on it.
The Massimo ($15.50/ $17.50), meaning maximum in Italian, also happens to be the name of Papale’s grandson. Covered with green pepper, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and fried onions, there is little room for anything more.
At Messina’s Pizza & Pasta, homemade cannoli, tiramisu and cheesecake — all homemade — are the perfect way to finish a meal.
“I really got what I wanted this time,” Papale says. “Upscale Italian restaurant food at a comfortable price, so everyone can enjoy it, not just the rich and famous. Your hard-earned money will go a lot further in my restaurant.”
Messina's offers amazing pasta and seafood
Other dishes, including Chicken Marsala ($14.95) is made with a sauteed chicken breast and capers in a creamy Marsala wine sauce, then served with a side of spaghetti. Chicken Francese ($14.95) has a fresh lemon, butter, and white wine sauce, also served with a spaghetti side.
All the chicken for Parmigiano ($14.95) is breaded in-house along with the chicken tender appetizer ($5.95) served with French fries.
Seafood entrees ($15.95) include shrimp scampi in a garlic, butter, wine sauce; clams and spaghetti served in a red or white sauce; shrimp parmigiana, jumbo breaded shrimp topped with red sauce and mozzarella cheese; and broiled tilapia with lemon butter and garlic over spaghetti.