The Chatterbox Restaurant itself, that ubiquitous pink building on Ninth Street just off the causeway in Ocean City, is an institution in that town. In fact, the traditional spot "where the town meets" predates even the Repici family that has owned and operated it for the past 40 or so years.
So one of the first things Marie Repici and her late husband Thomas did when they took over from the previous owners in 1972 was restore the original pink paint outside.
"It was pink for years, then when we bought it, it was green and the town was in an uproar," Marie Repici recalls. "When we came in, everyone said 'When are you going to make it pink again?' It was important to them."
The Repicis, who have worked there together as a family for three generations now, have found ways to make their own Chatterbox traditions, offering that nostalgic comfort food such as meatloaf on Wednesdays alongside more modern twists such as French toast stuffed with sweet cream cheese and topped with fresh berries. Here, guests feel they know the Repicis, some of whom live upstairs from the restaurant, others just down the street. People will often pause while walking by the outdoor dining space in front of the restaurant to make an informal reservation.
"We'll be back tonight for dinner with the whole family," is a familiar refrain heard along Central Avenue when Marie Repici sits under the awnings outside for a mid-morning bite with daughter-in-law Aimee, who calls Marie "Mom." "The kids are in town and we've been telling them about the shrimp scampi" or "chicken with gravy" or "cream chipped beef."
And lots of them come for the meatloaf. Which is fine by head chef Carlo Lala, who in his career has done everything from teaching at the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College to cooking at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Pomona. In between, he took a job at Denny's in order to better learn the food-cost and restaurant management side of things and worked as a purchasing agent at The Philadelphia Zoo because he thought "that had to be fun." So Lala knows sometimes the least glamorous dishes are the most loved. And the Chatterbox Restaurant is kind of a big deal, as far as local icons go.
Lala was working at the FAA tech center when he met Matt Repici, Aimee's son who was performing his academy of culinary arts work-study there. The reputation of the Chatterbox preceded Repici, and when he learned Lala was looking for a second job over the summer, he suggested they continue working together.
Lala sat down with the Repici's and had a heart-to-heart about restaurant philosophy and outlined the sorts of important events - such as a recent concert that fell on a summer weekend night - that might occasionally take him out of the kitchen.
"One thing I liked was he hit us with 'I'm going to take your menu out of the '70s, but we'll keep all the good stuff,' including the meatloaf," Aimee Repici says.
"It's the shore, you want to put seafood on the menu," Lala said about his approach to the menu. "But they're in the front and they see what people want and what does sell the most, and I'm pretty easygoing. I look at it like, I've been here a year, they're been here 40 years."
Another thing that sells is the Chatterbox Chowder. The relatively new Chatterbox tradition was created by Mike and Matt Repici, who is Lala's right hand … except even Lala doesn't have the recipe, Matt makes every batch himself. Matt says the chowder is mostly done in the New England style, but tomatoes are added to give it a pink hue.
"We wanted something that represented the Chatterbox, something to call our own," Matt Repici says. "So we made it pink, like the Chatterbox; everyone knows it from the outside."
Like their grandmother and mom, the Repici grandsons, Mike, Thomas, Matt and John, all have helped out in the restaurant at some point. But Matt, 25, is studying to be a chef at the Academy of Culinary Arts as well as pursuing a degree in hospitality management from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey with the aim of taking over the Chatterbox Restaurant one day. And John, 19, is learning the ropes in the kitchen while also attending college.
"Dishwasher, cashier, watching the broiler, you just do what needs to be done," says Joan Berkle, Marie's daughter who lives in Florida, but still comes back to help out in the summers with her husband, Paul. "If somebody doesn't show up, you do their job. That's always been the business."
While anyone can wash dishes, there is a certain skillset needed to keep such a busy kitchen running, and a whole lot of hard work. For example, serving breakfast daily with popular choices including spinach Florentine omelets and crab-benedict poached eggs requires a fresh batch of hollandaise sauce be whipped up almost hourly. It's not Matt Repici's favorite chore, but as an aspiring restaurateur who grew up in the business, he's used to just working through things in the kitchen.
It's important to clarify the butter first, he says, and to work quickly and efficiently when aerating the egg yolks with a whisk so they don't cook or scramble. When you go to poach the eggs, just heat enough water to cover an egg in a deep pan (about 4 inches deep) and add a 1/2 ounce of white vinegar to coagulate the proteins in the egg. That way you can just crack the egg right into the simmering water and it will cook together.
Repici estimates about half his knowledge of technical details such as proper sanitation and how to cut down steaks from a giant slab of beef come from ACA, the other half from on-the-job learning. And it doesn't hurt that Lala is a willing teacher.
Teaching "is truly a passion of mine," Lala says. "You have to have the patience to make food properly. Being Italian, my life revolves around food and this is truly a family that knows about good food."
And Lala has plenty of leeway in the kitchen, bringing in some recipes he's adapted over time, or putting his signature on something as simple as chunkier marinara sauce. For the French onion soup, Lala uses a chunk of toasted challah bread instead of a crouton, and pungent Spanish onions alongside heartier red onions, which caramelize well because of the sugar.
But whatever kind of onions you use, the key is in choosing a good pot, Lala says. Marie's son, Thomas, also deceased, knew how to pick good pots, and kitchen equipment in general, Lala says. Invest in a good stainless-steel or aluminum pot, so it retains the heat, Lala says. Because "you can't simmer in a thin pot."
Contact Felicia Compian:
Chatterbox French Onion Soup
•2 large Spanish onions
•1 medium red onion
•1 large leek, thoroughly cleaned
•1/2 stick butter
•1/2 gallon beef stock
•1/2 gallon chicken stock
•Salt and pepper to taste
•2 tablespoons fresh basil
•1 teaspoon dry thyme
•1 tablespoon granulated garlic
•1 bay leaf
•4 2-inch circles challah bread, toasted
•3 ounces Swiss cheese per serving
•3 ounces provolone cheese per serving
Sautee onions and leek in butter until soft. Add stock and simmer about 2 hours.
Add salt and pepper to taste, plus basil, thyme, garlic and bay leaf.
Divide soup between 4 oven-safe crocks and place a challah-bread "crouton" in each. Top each crock with three ounces each Swiss and provolone cheese. Broil in oven until cheese is brown and bubbling.