Working together at a Center City Philadelphia hotel - he as executive chef, she as director of catering - was surely what prepared Stephanie and Nick LoBianco to own and operate their own restaurants.

Now celebrating 10 years of owning their own businesses in South Jersey, they are firm believers in family restaurants, whether you call them a French-style bistro or an Italian trattoria. Those small European restaurants frequently have Dad behind the stove, Mom working the front of the house, and the children performing all the other necessary tasks around the restaurant.

Stephanie and Nick LoBianco wouldn't have it any other way.

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"Our guests have enjoyed watching our children grow up over the last 10 years," Stephanie LoBianco says.

Son Vincent, 18, has been involved since he was 7 years old, starting out as a bread server and now operating the dining room at Salt Ayre Bistro. The oldest son, Sage, 22, worked in the kitchen for many years with his father and recently graduated from Rutgers University and now helps with other facets of the business. Daughters Sophia, 7, and youngest Gigi, 5, are now staples at the restaurants, seating guests, giving bread and sharing conversation.

Working together as a family has kept the LoBiancos very tight-knit, even developing their own restaurant language over the years.

For the LoBiancos, family owned and operated means they have a complete vested interest in each and every guest.

Their newest endeavor is the 50-seat Italian-style trattoria in Ventnor, Stella, that has the authentic taste and feel of a real Italian trattoria.

The menu is Italian-inspired with plenty of fresh, local ingredients, and blackboard specials are available every day.

"People love specials," Stephanie LoBianco says.

She describes "the soup" - as it is listed on the menu - as a roasted tomato-fennel with pesto drizzle ($6). Creamy but without cream and vegetarian-based, LoBianco says the soup is "well loved."

"It's been a staple of ours - people frequently ask for the recipe," she says.

The soup is so delicious, it has remained in their repertoire for 10 years.

Antipasto ($9) has assorted cheeses including blue, sharp provolone and fresh mozzarella; assorted olives such as Calamata, Picholine and Gaeta; a grilled vegetable caponata; homemade roasted red peppers; and soppressata salumi.

Steamed mussels ($9) is a big bowl of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, served with fresh fennel, garlic, white wine and fresh herbs.

Medjool dates ($9) are stuffed with almonds and goat cheese, wrapped with applewood-smoked bacon, then served warm with arugula and Granny Smith apple, with a white wine vinaigrette.

"There is at least one on every table and people love it," Stephanie LoBianco says.

Meatballs ($8) are made from a veal, pork and beef mixture, served with toasted crostini smeared with a garlic-herb and ricotta spread. The meatballs are cooked in a pomodoro sauce.

Portabella ($8), a roasted portabella mushroom, has goat cheese, caramelized onion, baby spinach and is sauced with a lemon beurre blanc.

Salad choices include grilled romaine ($8), another item that has stood the test of time on LoBianco family menus, and is still among their most popular dishes.

"The pesto, balsamic goat cheese, crispy pancetta concoction rings true," Stephanie LoBianco says. "People always say they try to replicate it at home."

The lettuce also gets a charred flavor from the olive oil added before it goes on the grill.

A more traditional Caesar salad ($8) with Romaine lettuce and croutons receives a lemon-garlic dressing, and roasted beets ($8) is served with arugula, goat cheese, almonds and a fresh herb dressing.

"People are in love with beets right now," Stephanie LoBianco says.

Eggplant Parmigiano ($16) is layered sauce, eggplant and cheese, with a dollop of ricotta before it bakes in a gratin dish in the oven. Stella's version is egg-battered and sauteed, not breaded and deep-fried, for a lighter take on another classic trattoria dish.

"Ours definitely stands out from the crowd," Stephanie LoBianco says. "One of our best sellers."

Ravioli ($15) is hand-made, filled with spinach and ricotta, topped with a pomodoro sauce and finished with glazed mozzarella.

Orecchiette ($16), those little ear-shaped pasta, are tossed with homemade sweet Italian fennel sausage, roasted red peppers and tomato sauce with Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese on top.

Another great item for spring is the chicken panzanella ($17), a roasted chicken breast on a bed of arugula, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and rosemary croutons all tossed together with a pan jus sauce that is, "Just a little twist, and not so heavy," Stephanie LoBianco says.

Veal Milanese ($23) is pounded extra thin to make it fork tender, then lightly breaded and sauteed, with aged provolone and mozzarella cheese, sauteed broccoli rabe and a pomodoro tomato sauce.

Spaghetti and clams ($18) is made with local clams from Barnegat Light or Cape May, roasted tomatoes, cremini mushrooms, cherry peppers, garlic and white wine.

Gemelli ($19), or small pasta twists, come with sauteed shrimp, roasted peppers, cremini mushrooms and a brandy scented Rosa sauce.

Seafood Fra Diavolo ($23) is the No. 1 seller. The chef leaves it a little saucy, with fresh fish, shrimp, calamari, mussels and linguine pasta.

"My husband is an expert at sauces. His flavors are so well-developed they stand out above the rest," says Stephanie LoBianco.

While every Italian restaurant worth its salt may offer clams and spaghetti or fra Diavolo, she points out that while working the front of the house, she is the one who hears the customers' comments about the intricate flavors Nick LoBianco can work into his dishes.

A gorgeous red snapper that is like butter has just been added to the menu, served with a caper-tomato-olive relish.

"We pay a premium price for it and it is outstanding," Stephanie LoBianco says.

Side dish choices include long hots, broccoli rabe, whipped potatoes, a pasta side or a daily vegetable ($6 each).

All desserts are homemade. A dark chocolate tort ($7.50) is a dense, decadent, flourless chocolate cake. Iced lemon pound cake ($7.50) with fresh whipped cream and berries or a homemade cannoli ($5) with a chocolate chip ricotta stuffing are also available. French vanilla bean ice cream with Belgian dark chocolate ($7.50) and berries is a good choice, too. La Colombe coffee and espresso can be served after dessert to make the final course even more authentic.

The interior has a new look since the LoBianco family took over. While Nick LoBianco describes it as "vintage, retro, and industrial," Stephanie LoBianco simply says the room has an eclectic feel about it.

Customers seem to like the feel, the look and the food of the casual Italian family restaurant called Stella.

Salt Ayre Bistro

Salt Ayre Bistro, at 7309 Ventnor Ave. in Ventnor, is the sister to Stella restaurant, just a few doors down the street. Bistro in style, the menu offers plenty of comfort food in the form of seafood including oysters on the half shell and entrees from steak frites to roast chicken. Call 609-428-6952 for more information.

Made from scratch

All the pasta is handmade fresh - including pappardelle, spaghetti, linguine and gemelli. As you might expect in a family-run operation, everything at Stella is made from scratch, including fresh sausage, all the dressings and even the roasted red peppers.

Changing with the seasons

The menu at Stella receives a tweak with each new season. For spring, expect more local produce and plenty of lighter fare for both appetizers and entrees. Twenty outside seats will be available under the big awning out front this summer.


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