Pretty soon, the Liccios just might take over Margate. To say the South Philly transplants have come a long way since opening a pastry and ice cream shop in a small Ventnor storefront is an understatement.
Johnny's Cafe moved from a 60-seat cafe in Ventnor to Margate in 2008, expanded to include an outdoor patio in 2009, enclosed that patio into a gorgeous dining room in 2011, and now expanded that expansion to include a new 30-seat bar - up from a nine-seat bar - and added another 30 seats, even installing a stage for a DJ and live entertainment. The restaurant can now accommodate about 200 people. Plus, they just opened a Philly-style sandwich shop on the same block as Johnny's called John's Steaks (see sidebar), and recently purchased the adjacent building, formerly Fedeli's Restaurant, for a future project.
"The business, thank God, just keeps growing," says Johnny Liccio, who built the business with his wife Joanne. "The bar crowd just became too big to handle with the two little bars we had. So we had some space wasted between the two buildings and added 1,000 more square feet to expand the bar and add more dining room seating. There's two more bathrooms, and the decor is a little more high end. The ambiance is beautiful. I call it beachy elegance."
With a blue color scheme, dim lighting, white, classic, cabaret-style leather banquettes, a stunning bar with flat-screen TVs and an overall cool vibe, Liccio says locals are already responding.
"Absolutely, everyone wants to see the new space," Liccio says. "And when the summer crowd comes down, I know they are going to enjoy the new atmosphere."
As nice as the atmosphere at Johnny's is, the people are still coming for the food. That's because the Liccios never lost focus on what makes them successful: hard work and fresh, authentic Italian food made from scratch.
Liccio takes pride in his work ethic. He works six-and-a-half days a week, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and only taking off Tuesday nights - most of the time. You will rarely not find Johnny Liccio either in the kitchen or mingling with guests. His day starts early, as the longtime pastry chef still bakes the restaurant's bread that comes to the table with fresh roasted peppers. And the desserts are created in-house, too.
While dinner is a major focus, breakfast and lunch remain driving forces at the restaurant, with affordable meals offering everything from made-to-order omelets ($5.95 to $10.95); Johnny's Signature Snap Krackle Pop ($6.95) french toast with Texas toast, in a cinnamon-sugar Rice Krispies mix dipped in a secret egg batter; a wide array of salads including the Oriental ($10.95) with sushi-grade seared tuna, wasabi, Asian crispy noodles, cran-raisins topped with mandarin orange slices and soy-ginger dressing; platters such as the 8-ounce filet mignon ($13.95) with sauteed onions and house salad; and sandwiches including the South Philly ($7.95), a breaded chicken cutlet with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone.
But dinner is certainly the main event. Start with Liccio's famous Nonna's meatballs ($9) made with veal, beef and pork and served in his homemade gravy with long hots; Cafe shrimp ($9) are wrapped with bacon and drizzled with barbecue sauce; lobster mac and cheese ($14); and Johnny's Signature Grilled Seafood Salad ($25) with scallops, shrimp and seared tuna tossed in lemon and olive oil over spring mix.
Of course, anyone from South Philly would have amazing pasta and Italian dishes on his menu. Try choosing from the rigatoni Bolognese ($18), a traditional meat sauce; the Bowtie Rosemarie ($26), with jumbo lump crab in a spicy blush sauce; and the new Orrechiette Italiano ($22) with sausage, shrimp and broccoli rabe tossed in an aioli sauce.
Heartier Italian entrees include chicken and veal done in traditional sauces as well as the new veal chop parmigiana ($32), which is a bone-in, breaded chop butterflied, pounded, fried crisp and served over pasta with marinara and parmesan cheese; and chicken Pisano ($19), a spicy dish with hot and sweet peppers, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes.
Other standout entrees include the 16-ounce, prime angus, bone-in ribeye served over garlic mashed potatoes with veggies; a 16-ounce French-cut pork chop ($26) on the bone with sauteed hot and sweet peppers and onions in a honey glaze; salmon Wellington ($25) wrapped in puff pastry and drizzled with Asian sesame dressing; and Johnny's signature cafe lobster ($36), with lobster tail topped with lumb crabmeat with a light Francaise sauce featuring white wine, lemon butter, capers and sun-dried tomatoes.
"We always change the menu every other season," Liccio says. "I like to eat, so I like to fool around with what I like to eat and keep things fresh. Being in this industry is about being fresh and new. I want to keep my customers interested in food with new recipes and new presentations all of the time."
Walk into Johnny's Cafe during happy hour, and you'll see why the Liccios had to expand their restaurant. Offered 4 to 7 p.m. daily and all night Wednesday (4 to 6 p.m. daily, and 4 to 6 p.m. and 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesdays in the summer), a special bar menu offers about two dozen items for $6 that include Ahi tuna sashimi, clams casino, bacon-wrapped shrimp, mussels, cheeseburger sliders, lollipop lamb chops, whiskey-grilled baby back ribs, chicken wings, crab dip and much more. Plus, more than 20 Van Gogh vodka martinis are priced at $6.
"Happy hour is huge," Liccio says. "Everyone is happy. We really built that up to an amazing point. People fill this place up, even on weekdays in the offseason."
The Liccios have done what many other Margate restaurants have failed to do over the years: develop a loyal, local following that supports their business year-round.
"To be honest, it never crossed my mind that we would evolve to here from the little ice cream and pastry shop," Liccio says. "One day I said to my wife, 'I think I am going to start making breakfast.' And she said I was crazy. And she is still saying it today."
And what will the Liccios do with the former Fedeli's building?
"Stay tuned, brother," he says with a laugh. "We're never stopping, and there will be some great surprises in the future."
A taste of Philly in Margate
There's no need to drive to Philadelphia anymore for a great cheesesteak. Johnny Liccio's new Philly-style sandwich shop, John's Steaks, opened March 30 in the former Rita's Water Ice location, and emulates the Philadelphia sandwich experience, including two separate windows to order your food, a stainless steel facade, bright neon signs and even signage to tell you how to order your steaks "Wit" (onions) or "Witout."
The takeout-only, cash-only business has the attitude and charm of Philadelphia institutions such as Pat's and Geno's, and the cheesesteaks (served with Cheez Whiz, provolone or American) are every bit as good.
Served on fresh-baked Aversa's rolls, the steaks ($6.50 to $7.50) are prime ribeye in a 10-percent marinade created by Liccio that are sliced down and grilled to perfection in a flat-top. They are tender and filling, and the rolls are delicious.
"I bought the building because I always wanted to do a Philly cheesesteak place at the shore because I think there was a void here," Liccio says. "But what sealed the deal was I went out one night and I went to a place for a cheesesteak and I had to wait 45 minutes to get a sandwich. So I think this is perfect to capitalize on the late-night crowd. It's about great quality, fast service and great bread. We went through a lot of research to create the perfect sandwiches."
There's more than cheesesteaks, however. Chicken cutlets ($6.50 to $7.50) are breaded with Italian breadcrumbs and fried and can be topped with provolone and homemade, bitter broccoli rabe; roasted pork sandwiches ($7 to $7.50) are made with pork that is slow-roasted for four hours, lightly seasoned and stored in a homemade au jus; the fish cake ($6.50) is made with whitefish, potato, pepper and mustard, which Liccio describes as "kind of like a crab cake with no filler"; and the hot dogs ($1.90) are made to pay tribute to Lenny's, a former Margate institution because the dogs are made with American cheese and pepper hash, a homemade white relish concoction featuring cabbage, green peppers, carrots, sugar, vinegar, water and onion.
"There was a line all day long to get those hot dogs at one point, and I think ours are just as good," Liccio says.
Open from lunch to late night, Liccio says business has already been brisk.
"I think we have a niche here that offers the convenience of window service, but the speed and the quality are the keys," he says. "So far it has been phenomenal. People are just raving about them."