The LaMonaca family, made up of Romano, Marisa and daughter Sandra, have been involved in the same restaurant in the same spot for a very long time. But that doesn't mean they believe in the status quo.
In order to survive, restaurants are forced to change from time to time. Cuisines, decor, ingredients or even the name sometimes goes away or, mysteriously, comes back into style.
That is the only way restaurants survive for 24 years.
What was originally called The Hurricane, then Dirty Martha's, was called The Courtroom when the LaMonacas took over. During their tenure, it became Garfield's Giardino, Garfield's Fun House nightclub, Luna nightclub, Gia's, and now Gioia.
The deal to sell their restaurant to another family fell through at the last minute. Together, their restaurant family never missed a beat in getting its latest project back on track.
The LaMonacas are back, bringing joy to the world, in the form of Gioia Ristorante.
Among the first changes made was to bring on a new general manager and executive chef, Andrew Skilton, a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. Having trained at the Ritz-Carlton and other places in New York, and more recently at the Cape Resorts group in Cape May, Skilton's goal is to bring the level of food and service up a notch and to make Gioia's a destination restaurant.
"I tend to use some more traditional cooking methods and ingredients, although we do have a good handle on the classics," Skilton says. "I don't like to mess with those too much."
The new menu includes the addition of both more unique and more contemporary things.
One popular appetizer is the broccoli rabe and sweet sausage ($13) served with a twist: grilled polenta and a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Another new addition is the outdoor patio and garden bar, with its own small-bites appetizer menu. There is a full wine and liquor list as well as specialty frozen drink and beer specials that will change frequently.
Fronting on Pacific Avenue, the open-air piazza is a great place to people-watch from a table or from the recently re-done Tuscan marble bar.
Skilton tends to change his menus frequently, based on seasonality, and noted the main menu is served in each of Gioia's venues.
The menu is broken down into courses, the way Italians prefer to eat.
The appetizer menu at Gioia offers calamari two ways. Fried calamari ($10) is the traditional version, breaded and deep fried then served with a house-made marinara sauce.
The Sicilian calamari ($12) is a lighter version than the classic; lightly breaded then sauteed with capers, cherry peppers and the house marinara.
"It adds a nice spice to it and makes it a little different from the normal calamari," Skilton says.
Both dishes are made from fresh, never frozen, calamari.
Gnocchi ($17) is served in two different styles: a homemade basil pesto, or baked with marinara and mozzarella cheese. Tortellini and lasagna are among many other pasta choices.
When it comes to pesce, Skilton recommended three nontraditional dishes that still stay with the soul of the Italian kitchen: pan-seared Cape May scallops ($34) with a vegetable risotto, basil oil and a baby beet green salad on top; bronzino fillets ($36) with polenta cakes, broccoli rabe and Gaeta olive tapenade; and the Scottish salmon ($29) pan seared with a plum tomato and white wine sauce served over a choice of pasta.
"We work with local fishermen," Skilton says. "Our scallops come from just off our coast."
Skilton has removed items from the menu such as Chilean sea bass and Costa Rican flounder, instead choosing local species including blackback flounder and the Loch Duart salmon, which is raised in an environmentally responsible and sustainable fashion.
Tour of Italy ($26) is the perfect option for those struggling to pick just one main dish. Slightly smaller tasting portions of lasagna, chicken parmesan and tortellini Marisa allow locals and vacationers alike to sample the depth of the regional menu at Gioia.
One of the most recent additions to Gioia's menu is the popular bistecca alla Fiorentina ($49), a Tuscan-style, 16-ounce, USDA prime porterhouse steak. Skilton marinates it in roasted garlic and rosemary extra virgin olive oil, grills it to temperature, then tops it with fresh sauteed spinach and roasted red bliss potatoes.
The bistecca alla Fiorentina is one of those dishes Skilton remembers eating with a simple squeeze of lemon juice while sitting in a piazza in Florence.
"Nobody has asked for A-1 sauce," Skilton says.
The quality and the cut of meat makes all the difference. Gioia's porterhouse steaks are cut by a butcher back in South Philadelphia.
The owners will frequently travel to surrounding farms to purchase local ingredients. Blueberries, corn and potatoes, whatever is in season, becomes the basis for Gioia's daily specials.
The family has been bullish on Wildwood since they moved there in 1975 because times have changed.
"I think that heyday (for Wildwood) will come around again," says Romano LaMonaca, who understands the restaurant needs to attract a different generation of people. "Their needs change, what they are looking for changes."
In 2009, there was no upscale nightclub in Wildwood, so Luna was born and the first year was very successful.
"Then like everything else it worked in the summertime and in the winter time ... the sidewalks roll up," LaMonaca says.
When the business deal fell through, the restaurant had already changed its name, advertising was planned and the restaurant was ready for the season.
In order to make it less confusing for their many loyal customers, a name similar to the one chosen by the new owners was decided on. In Italian Gioia means joy, named after the LaMonacas' granddaughter, in order to make the transition as seamless as possible for their customers.
"I like the road that this is taking," LaMonaca says.
He adds it may have been something they should have done sooner.
"When you go to Italy, Italian food there is not heavy," LaMonaca says.
It is different in the United States. Much like nightclubs and everything else, America's tastes changed. Tourists and diners nowadays are much more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago. And they know a lot more about good food.
"I wanted it to be a lighter, more eclectic-type cuisine and the reason I used the word fusion is because Andrew had both the culinary experience of Italy and the influences of different regions in Europe and France.
What LaMonaca and Skilton hope to accomplish is that coastal, Mediterranean style where you can taste and appreciate the lighter food, while keeping true to the Italian tradition.
"You can't be everything to everybody, but we try," LaMonaca says. "I think Wildwood is on the right path and that we can still be a family resort, but with an air of sophistication at the same time."
The LaMonaca family is back in charge, giving Gioia its direction, happily and joyfully.
Roar to the Shore bike weekend will be held Sept. 7 and 8 this year. Gioia will be featuring live music, daily drink and appetizer specials all weekend to celebrate the event. The band Goodman Fiske will be on hand for the event to offer some rock.
Three-course tasting menu
Gioia is offering a special chef's three-course tasting menu for $35 that includes a complimentary glass of red or white wine. Antipasta course options include bruschetta, fried calamari or vegetable Napoleon. Entrees include chicken Capri, pasta bolognese or flounder Francaise. Desserts include gelatos, sorbets or cannolli. The menu is available 4:30 to 7 p.m. daily.