Joey Montello — aka Joey M — will tell you: “I’ve been in the restaurant business 45 years, and I’ve been in the entertainment business for 45 years.”
In other words, when it comes to Joey M running a restaurant — the legendary La Piazza Cucina Italiana — entertainment and dining go hand in hand. One doesn’t exist without the other.
“And it’s been that way my whole life,” says the singer and restaurateur. “When I was a kid, we had one of those units where it was a stereo and radio and TV all in one, and my grandmother would say, ‘Go put on Sinatra or Dean Martin.’ So I would, and in the meantime, I would be in the kitchen working with her making homemade pasta or whatever. I was always hands on, and we would be singing along.”
As Joey M got older, that family time in the kitchen transformed to a career path, first with Joey M running a lunch truck — where he didn’t sing but would head to local bars to show off his stuff after the truck closed — to eventually opening his first place in Northeast Philly in 1982, where he would sing every Friday and Saturday night.
“My longest running joke is that I opened a restaurant to cure my singing career,” he laughs.
Eventually — in 1998 to be exact — Joey M came to Wildwood, where his family vacationed every year. In 2000, La Piazza Cucina was born, and is now celebrating its 20th season.
Just in time for its big anniversary, Joey M’s moved to a much-improved location right next to Cattle N’ Clover on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood. Not only does the new La Piazza Cucina benefit from an attractive design scheme and new furniture — it’s in the former Pacifico spot that was nicely designed and renovated just a couple of years ago — but Joey M now has an outside patio where he can perform along with a bevy of great supper club crooners — including powerhouse vocalist Marc Antonelli every Thursday and Sunday — while feasting on La Piazza Cucina’s Italian cuisine.
There are times when you walk into La Piazza and you can feel like you just crashed a wedding … and that’s a good thing. On any given night, Joey M and his cadre of performers belt out everything from Sinatra and American Songbook standards to opera and pop as diners get up and dance along while others clap and smile.
The beauty of the new La Piazza is that Joey M can offer two experiences: outside for those who really want to have a joyous, party, Italian supper club kind of dinner; and inside, where it’s more quiet and intimate.
“We have music Thursdays to Mondays, and people love the music so much that they will sit outside even when it’s really hot,” Joey M says. “In the winter, everything is inside, but in the summer, we love to use the courtyard for music. And the great thing about this place is you never know who will walk in. Bobby Rydell came here two nights in a row two weeks ago, and he came up and sang with me. That was just awesome.”
No matter which dining area you choose, you won’t be disappointed with La Piazza’s always impressive food. If you’re looking for upscale, modern Italian cuisine, this place isn’t for you. If you’re looking for authentic, throwback, old-school Italian — South Philly style — then this is your joint.
“I don’t mess with success and tradition,” Joey M says. “No matter who works in my kitchen — and I’ve had the same two guys in the kitchen with me for the last 15 years — if they can’t follow my recipes, they can’t be in my kitchen. Every dish is mine. I researched them, experimented with them and then added my own take on these great recipes. I still go in the kitchen every day and do specials. I love it.”
While eating, make sure you check out the TV commercials Joey M has starred in over the years that show his love for mob films such as “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather,” in which he stars as Don Corleone, complete with stuffed cheeks.
“One of my favorites is that we got all of the Wildwood restaurant owners together and they sat around the table like all the dons did in ‘The Godfather.’ And they were all trying to twist my arm for the recipe for the Sicilian calamari. It was pretty funny,” Joey M says. “I love it; it’s in my blood.”
Now back to the food. All of Joey M’s longtime staples are here, like the aforementioned calamari ($14), one of the restaurant’s signature items with olive oil, a white wine, lemon butter reduction, cured olives, capers, cherry peppers and garlic; the Tower of Pisa ($14) with layered eggplant, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh arugula and balsamic vinaigrette; Veal Gianna ($29) with artichoke hearts, prosciutto, imported cheeses and a delicate lemon and white wine sauce; and Shrimp Amalia ($35) with white wine, garlic-butter reduction, fresh herbs and choice of pasta.
During our visit, the food was superb … simple, Italian-American comfort food with great ingredients and tremendous portions for the price. La Piazza remains a real value, especially since every dinner includes choice of soup or salad and great Italian bread.
Our favorite starters included the steamed clams ($11) in a mind-bending white wine and garlic sauce that will have you reaching for bread to dip; roasted peppers ($10) in garlic and olive oil topped with sharp provolone; and two of the night’s specials, fried Jersey red tomatoes with a crispy panko crust, a homemade pesto and fresh mozzarella; and a crispy, pan-fried homemade meatball served dry with roasted peppers … just like grandma would serve.
For entrees, the veal parm ($26) is about as good as it gets — a huge, thinly pounded piece of milk-fed veal in an Italian herb breadcrumb crust, quality mozzarella cheese and Joey M’s secret marinara that has made him famous over the years served over choice of pasta — and Cioppino ($35) with sautéed shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels, scallops and lump crab in a spicy tomato broth or a white wine, garlic and oil reduction. Go with the spicy red.
We can’t wait to go back to check out the homemade arancini ($12) that Joey M created himself with prosciutto and roasted pepper in a cream sauce; the penne a la vodka ($20) with pancetta; the chicken Angelina ($28) with provolone, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and a roasted red pepper cream sauce; and Salmon Fantastico ($28), baked salmon with sautéed spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and sherry baked in a puff pastry and topped with a lemon butter beurre blanc sauce; and maybe even a flatbread with shrimp scampi ($12).
Wildwood has seen its ups and downs over the years, but Joey M has remained steadfast in his support for the city he loves. And as he celebrates his 20th season in a new location, the soon-to-be 65-year-old says he remains optimistic.
“I have had amazing years here and not-so-amazing years,” Joey M says. “But I can feel that surge again. And I am energized again. I am approaching entertainment differently and I am more involved in the kitchen than I have been in years. That surge I feel gives me the rush that I want to do this again. I can feel that surge, and I believe it’s going to come back and be bigger than ever!”