When Rick Romanelli was growing up, his jeweler parents offered year round the meatless diet many Catholics observe during Lent.

But the Egg Harbor Township resident and owner of Romanelli's Garden Cafe, in Galloway Township, and Romanelli's on the Greene, in Linwood, says he never felt deprived, because his mother would prepare entree-size salads with layers of texture and flavor combinations.

"In the summer we'd have a nice big salad and that was the main course," he recalled. "We'd have, they called it antipasto salad but it didn't have any prosciutto on it or any meat. Instead (my mom would) have some sauteed eggplant parm on the side."

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As soon as he could, Romanelli started working in food and beverage, training at the Smithville Inn in Galloway Township, before buying a specialty market in Egg Harbor City with his brother-in-law at the age of 19. After many years there, he opened Romanelli's on the Greene, expanding operations later with Romanelli's Garden Cafe.

The Galloway restaurant boasts a full bar and offers dinner as well as breakfast and lunch, while the Linwood restaurant closes after lunch. Most of the catered events are handled from the Linwood property, but both locations roast their own roast beef, turkey and hams and do a brisk business sending out party trays of shrimp, wraps and sandwiches.

From the beginning, Romanelli had a winning strategy as a business owner. The family market specialized in Italian meats, so the vegetarian let his brother-in-law, who was a butcher, head up that side of things while he focused on other aspects of serving their customers.

And that's how things still work at Romanelli's, said manager Leslie Phillips, of Absecon.

"We really customize our menu to what the customers want, so we change our menu in small ways every few months," she said. "A lot of times, with the specials, he'll let the cooks come up with something and it will end up on the menu. Everyone gives input and we work as a family."

One such trusted cook is Leira DeJesus, of Brigantine, who prepares the salads and sandwiches that are so popular with guests.

DeJesus says her mother instilled early in her a love of cooking their traditional Mexican cuisine. But the real lesson was never to stop learning new techniques or cooking styles in the kitchen. For example, she started cooking at Patsy's, Atlantic Club Casino's Italian restaurant, about 13 years ago and immediately took to the Italian cooking style.

"It's completely different (from Mexican food), " DeJesus said of Italian food. "It's hard to compare, like all the ingredients. For example we don't use parmesan cheese. But I love it. I always knew I wanted to cook and I really, really like to learn."

By the time she got a second job at Romanelli's in Galloway, DeJesus knew enough to teach her Italian boss a few things. She saw there was no focaccia bread on the menu, so she prepared her own version of the seasoned bread for the staff, then it became one of the most-asked-for items on the menu, and the rest is history.

The most popular version is topped with Roma tomatoes, parmesan cheese, fresh basil and rosemary. But DeJesus also makes focaccia topped with jalapenos, a Mexican staple, or other choices - all fresh daily.

She says the key to making focaccia bread is the yeast. If you use too much, the bread will not cook through in the pan and you simply have to dump it and start over. Too little, and you may still be able to use the extra-crispy product, but only for about a day before it gets too hard.

DeJesus adds the yeast with the dough ingredients and lets it rise 30 minutes before covering the base with topping and leaving it alone another 30 minutes before baking.

"It's all about letting your employees show what they can do," Romanelli said of DeJesus and others working for him. "That's why you hire them."

When it comes to salad, DeJesus sticks with the tried-and-proven Romanelli family recipes. But after making so many entree salads over the years, she's picked up on the basic rules for a perfect salad.

A good rule of thumb is to start with a large handful of lettuce or spring mix as a base, then layer tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers for texture and color, a few feature items such as boiled eggs if wanted, and top with about an ounce each of cheese, nuts and/or dried fruit.

The combination transforms a simple serving of vegetables to a virtual party in your mouth.

"It elevates the salad from an appetizer to a meal," Romanelli said of all the textures and flavor combinations found in a salad. "Then if you add steak or chicken, as many people do, you're eliminating the bread, so it's a very healthy way of eating a complete meal."

As with all great dishes, the secret is in the sauce, or in this case, dressing. Romanelli's balsamic vinaigrette dressing is so popular, readers have written in to The Press of Atlantic City asking for the simple recipe - just salad oil, balsamic vinegar and a blend of common kitchen spices.

As popular as it is, not everyone likes the same amount of dressing, so Romanelli's provides 3-ounce cups of the dressing on the side of salad plates. Some people ask for more, some hardly use any, but almost all diners rave about it, Phillips said.

Even the chili-garlic chicken salad - served over Caesar salad - comes out dry with Caesar dressing on the side. That's because the chili-garlic sauce on the chicken is enough flavor for many of the dish's fans.

"Everyone's different with their chili-garlic chicken," Phillips said, but the important thing is they all love it and keep coming back for more.

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