The culinary duo running Baia Restaurant in Somers Point are some kind of reverse snowbirds.
Co-executive chefs Edward Bonsigniore Jr. and Anthony Muolo III met at work about 15 years ago and immediately clicked professionally. Both enjoy working seasonally, offering their heavily American-influenced "Italian food with a twist" to tourists by the water in Jupiter, Fla., where the high season is in winter.
By the time Gary Hollaway, who owns the bayside building in which Baia is located, came to eat with his family at their restaurant, Bonsigniore and Muolo had grown more like brothers than business partners.
"Aw, we always have a blast," Bonsigniore said. "We have the music playing in the kitchen and we're bouncing around like it's a rock and roll concert."
Muolo stands accused of singing loudly in the kitchen during dinner shifts, but his coworkers tolerate it because he can carry a tune, he explains.
About three years ago, Hollaway convinced Bonsigniore to come check out his property in New Jersey, from whence Muolo hails. And that summer they opened Baia as an upscale deck restaurant with a marked tropical theme.
There isn't a bad seat in the large indoor dining room, sleekly designed with a large granite bar in the middle, wood beam rafters and blonde wood furniture. The restaurant's lined with windows offering panoramic views of the bay from the Route 52 causeway to the Longport Bridge.
That's fronted by a covered deck dining room, then a bayfront patio bar with umbrellas and boat slips where hungry boaters can get casual grub, including burgers and softshell crab sandwiches.
Muolo says the two chefs complement each other, with Bonsigniore setting up the foundation of a good dish, and Muolo presenting it flawlessly. Bonsigniore, who attended the French Culinary Institute in Florida, says he trusts no one but Muolo to run the kitchen while he offers tableside chef service for special dishes. And both men agree on the fundamentals, including that the worst thing you can do to fish is overcook it, and the best thing is to have ingredients pre-measured and close at hand when cooking.
"I hate cooking at home because here I have my whole set up and the right ingredients in front of me and the power equipment," Bonsigniore says. "Here I don't have to worry about making a mess, I have all my mis en place."
Mis en place, or having ingredients prepared and measured so they're close at hand during cooking, is key to serving quality dishes to hundreds of patrons per night, both chefs say. Muolo estimates a little less than half his time in the kitchen is spent setting up ingredients, and more than half cooking. His veal rib chop parmesan, for example, takes about 45 minutes to cook, start to finish. That's about 20 minutes prep, 25 minutes cooking.
For the snapper filet, only 5 to 6 minutes of the approximate 20 to 25 minute cook time is spent actually searing the fish. While meat can be measured with a thermometer, fish takes more "eyeing up" to tell if it's done. A fork should go right through a filet of fish when it's done, coming up easily, and the meat will start to pull apart slightly, Muolo says.
"If you cook it too long, it will dry out and taste like you're eating a piece of shoe leather," Muolo says of fish.
It's a good thing they enjoy hanging out at work, because after Hurricane Sandy "wiped out" the restaurant last fall, Bonsigniore and Muolo decided not to open their Florida restaurant for the winter, in order to focus on repairs in Somers Point. For Bonsigniore, that means he hasn't seen much of his family, who still are in Florida but will visit him in his Ocean City home this summer. But Muolo has been happy to reconnect with some folks from his hometown of Trenton.
And then of course, these are guys who are most at home serving their favorite food to tourists by the water.
Contact Felicia Compian:
Veal Rib Chop Parmesan
•1 12- to 14-ounce veal rib chop, on the bone
•2 cups bread crumbs
•2 tablespoons cooking oil
•1 cup flour
•12 ounces tomato sauce
•2 ounces portobella mushrooms
•4 ounces shaved parmesan cheese
•1 roma tomato
•6 ounces cooked linguini noodles
•4 ounces fresh mozzarella
Pound veal chop thin using a meat mallet. Mix eggs and milk in a bowl, then dredge chop in mixture to coat, dip in bread crumbs and fry in oil to brown.
Layer tomato sauce, mushrooms and cheese around the chop, plop the roma tomato on top in the middle and bake at 400 degrees about 20 minutes, or until bubbling. Toss cooked linguini with a little tomato sauce and serve chop over pasta. Top with a sprinkling of fresh basil and shaved parmesan.