South Jersey Restaurant Week starts next, and we were honored to be able to conduct a few interviews with some of the participating restaurants. Arugula in Sewell is still relatively new to the Italian restaurant scene, but it has already made a favorable impression with diners in the area. Chefs (and brothers) Stefano Gervasi and Nicholas Tomasetto try to create a menu that is different from the typical Italian fare we see all the time in South Jersey. Chef Stefano took some time to talk about how they differentiate themselves as well as how he and brother Nick work together.
EiSJ: What was the ‘a-ha!’ moment when you realized that cooking was going to be your passion?
Chef Stefano: My father was a Chef/Restaurant Owner so the only time I was able to spend with him was in the kitchen because he was always busy. I looked forward to the days I could go into work with him and watch him cook. When I was younger my favorite dish was Chicken Marsala. He taught me how to make it when I was about 12 or 13. Once he showed me how to make that dish I was hooked, I knew I wanted to cook and become a chef.
EiSJ: How do you try to differentiate yourself in an area where there are so many Italian restaurants?
Chef Stefano: Nick and I try to be different from all the other restaurants around by not doing “normal Italian dishes” like Fettuccine Alfredo and Chicken Parmesan. The menu we have at Arugula is a little more spiced up than your normal restaurant.
EiSJ: Is there a particular region of Italy that your menu focuses on, or do you try to represent many regions?
Chef Stefano: Our base cooking style is derived from Calabria where our father Nino Gervasi was born. That cuisine is really rustic and has a lot of spice in it. We don’t like to be held to one style, so we like to take bits and pieces from all over Italy and put our modern twist on it. Cooking has no rules so we can even take flavors from three regions of Italy and combine them on one plate.
EiSJ: Talk about the creative relationship between yourself and Chef Nicholas.
Chef Stefano: Nick is five years older than me so he has a lot more experience in the kitchen than I do. Nick was the one who really taught me how to cook and showed me the correct way to do things. The relationship I have with my brother is strong and we both cook at our place. All we do is talk about food, what we can do better to improve our place, and what new techniques we can try.
EiSJ: Where do you see the dining scene in South Jersey right now, and where is it heading?
Chef Stefano: The dining scene in South Jersey is split. It’s either you’re a classic restaurant or new, modern restaurant. The classic places do an amazing job of providing classic dishes that people grew up with and love to eat. The modern places do different, new and creative menu items that have a totally different flavor profile. The dining scene is only going to get better. SJ Hot Chefs are doing a great job promoting independent places and making people aware that some of the best food in the tri-state area is right here in South Jersey.
EiSJ: How great is it to have many options when it comes to choosing locally-grown food?
Chef Stefano: In the summer it is great to have all this local, fresh produce to use. All the farms do a great job in providing beautiful, fresh produce that we love to use. We use Duffield’s Farms in Sewell, Maccarone Farms in Swedesboro, and Banscher Farms in Gibbstown, and they provide us with only “Grade A” produce.
EiSJ: What stereotypes about Italian cuisine would you like to see obliterated?
Chef Stefano: Generally, Italian restaurants seem to give you large portions and people seem to think that more means better. I believe that quality comes before quantity. Just because you have a large portion of food doesn’t make it a good meal.
EiSJ: Name one ingredient more people should cooking with at home?
Chef Stefano: I love risotto but most people are hesitant to make it at home because it takes a long time to make. It’s a ton of stirring and you have to give it extra attention, but if you do it correctly it’s the perfect side for almost any protein.
EiSJ: What do you like about Restaurant Week?
Chef Stefano I love Restaurant Week because it showcases your food and what kind of restaurant you own. When Nick and I write the menu for Restaurant Week we try to do things that other restaurants won’t have on their menus. We both like the challenge of making four delectable plates per guest and having all the dishes come out perfect.
EiSJ: For those who will be eating at your place for the first time during Restaurant Week, what lasting impression do you want them to have?
Chef Stefano: We would like our guests to leave with that “wow” factor during Restaurant Week. We like to take a slightly more “out of the box” approach with our menu and hope that when our guests are finished their meal, they leave excited about their dining experience. It is our goal to have our guests looking forward to coming back to the restaurant to dine again and to send their friends to a great place.