It seems to have started when I was about 10 years old. I would go to my grandmother’s house weekly for an Italian Feast; usually Pasta with her famous clam sauce, some type of appetizer (usually leftover from the prior night’s feast), and salad — always served after the main dish. This was all followed by fennel and fresh fruit, and a dessert. My grandfather and father would have espresso from the stovetop, and I would finish my milk. This type of family gathering and eating always appealed to me and Nonna would always include me in the cooking, whether it was checking the pasta, tasting the sauce, or cutting vegetables and fruit. I suspect that she did this to keep me out of her way, as I was always trying to see and learn what she was doing. Ah, but in the end, she had no idea what was to come of these small “jobs” she initially gave me!
I got my first job in a restaurant at 13 years old. The action immediately drew me in. The “organized chaos” of the kitchen just felt like home. I would constantly over step the boundaries of my job descriptions and get myself involved in every aspect of what was happening in the restaurant. I literally fell in love. Getting my hands dirty, sweating, running, it was all so much fun — and still is. Some chefs call it a disease, but I think it’s more of a calling.
After High School I attended university, but not to much of an end. When the lack of inspiration became unbearable and I couldn’t sit in class for one minute longer, I decided to go to culinary school instead. I attended Johnson & Wales University, in Providence Rhode Island. I finished in 1999 and quickly got a job at a small restaurant / catering facility in West Milford NJ where I worked tirelessly for a year and a half. Unfortunately, the place was too small for me to experience any real advancement, so I kept my eyes open for other opportunities.
Shortly after, I was told about a brand new Italian Restaurant in Hillsdale, NJ that was getting ready to open and needed chefs. I was initially hired as a sous chef and worked for close to three years in that position. Just as I was really hitting my stride, the owner gave the news that he was attempting to sell the restaurant. I was crushed! All I could think about was the letdown of having to start all over again elsewhere, even though I was only 23. I thought for awhile, and one question raced to the fore of my mind: why couldn’t I operate the place myself? As I thought further, I slowly realized that I was already doing the lion’s share of the work and even though I currently did none of the “office work” that I hated so much, I had already learned most of it at school. I decided that I could do it. Then the searching began and my business management coursework kicked into gear.
Restaurants are one of the most risky investments a bank can make, and I went to many banks that hastily turned me down. Finally, I convinced one to take a chance on a 23 year old wanting to purchase a restaurant, and I immediately began begging my family to co-sign for a loan worth more than I ever dreamed of even having, let alone borrowing.
On October 3rd, 2002, the paperwork was signed and I became the owner of the same restaurant that I was an employee of for the three years prior. Needless to say there was much “on the job training” to be done as I learned more about the details of what goes on outside the kitchen.
Seven years later, Bella Campania has grown and obtained many faithful customers, and I, as a chef have also grown in my passion and vision. Many customers have told me that I am the best BYOB restaurant in Bergen County, and although I wear those accolates with pride, I never stop striving to improve.
So, here I am many years later, with a brand new daughter at home and growing my business. Needless to say, I am proud of my accomplishments, and I think my Nonna would be as well… now that I’m in my own kitchen and out of her way.