You would think a young couple, each with full-time jobs and two children under the age of 4, would have so much on their plate already that opening a restaurant would be the last thing on their minds. But if Matt and Nicole Steelman thought that way, folks of Upper Township and beyond would never have the chance to experience the new La Casetta Italian Bistro in Ocean View.
Situated directly on Route 9, the small building once housed the popular Red Sky Café. The spot sat empty for three years before the Steelmans, who on top of everything else also help out at their uncle Leonard Desiderio’s Sea Isle bar Kix McNutley’s year round, decided to take a look at the vacant restaurant.
It was working within the food industry at Kix that prompted them to consider a place of their own. They shopped around until finally deciding on the old Red Sky site, chosen for its easy-access, offshore location, as well as its size.
“It’s a great location … and we liked it because it’s small,” Nicole says. “We wanted a nice restaurant and wanted a chef to focus on quality food and not mass-produced food.”
Before they could do anything, however, the building needed work — a lot of work. Fortunately Matt, who works for the Sea Isle City Police Department, happens to have a background in construction as well.
“I redid the floors, redid the drywall, painted, I redid the exterior,” lists Matt, who opted to forgo the bright colors of the Southwestern-themed Red Sky. “Everything structural was fine. Cosmetically, it was never taken care of, so I redid the whole place.”
Though the restaurant was ready sooner, the Steelmans wisely waited for the busy season to end before finally opening its doors on Nov. 1.
Family members were encouraged to chime in when trying to figure out a name for the new restaurant.
“My mom and his mom gave us all Italian names,” Nicole says. “We wanted something that had meaning to it. And the family voted for La Casetta. The basic translation is ‘little house,’ so we thought it was very fitting.”
If opening an Italian restaurant in an area known for its Italian restaurants isn’t enough of a leap of faith, hiring a chef you’ve never met before was like rocketing into an orbit of uncertainty.
However, when you’ve worked up a reputation for cooking outstanding Italian dishes at spots such as Sapore in West Cape May, La Fontana Coast in Sea Isle and La Vecchia Fontana in Avalon, as Chef Kenny Fernandez had, the hiring process becomes quite effortless.
Word on the street was that Fernandez had visions of opening a restaurant of his own for some time. When Matt heard this, and learned of Fernandez’s stellar reputation as a cook, he wanted to meet him — quickly.
“He couldn’t have made it as a cook at all those places if he didn’t do it well,” says Matt of Fernandez. “He has the heart and the hard drive to be successful.”
For years, Fernandez had dreamed of opening his own restaurant, developing menus in his head as he worked for others. Matt pretty much gave Fernandez his wish, allowing him to have complete ownership of the kitchen of La Casetta when it comes to designing the menu, creating specials and beyond.
“I told him, ‘you’re in control of the kitchen — this is your career and your life,’” Matt explains. “He (Fernandez) has hired who he wanted in the kitchen and he’s going to run and manage it the way he wants — every decision in the kitchen is his.”
Nicole, who’s a nurse for the Wildwood Public School District, is amazed by what Fernandez can accomplish in a day.
“He makes 95% of things on the menu — all the sauces, the soups, the salad dressings, desserts, gnocchi, pastas,” she says. “My husband got this pasta maker from Italy that he really wanted. Kenny said, ‘I’m telling you this will make a difference.’ So Matt ordered it.
“And he doesn’t freeze anything. He said he didn’t even want freezers in the restaurant,” she laughs.
The menu at La Casetta is a compilation of basic Italian dishes and creations of Fernandez’s.
Entrees come with a house salad, but make room for appetizers, such as the blackened ahi tuna bites ($11.95) with a mango-coconut salsa. And if you can never have enough greens, the Quattro Stagioni salad ($10.95) with baby arugula, red grapes, dried cranberries, Anjou pears, crumbled goat cheese with a lovely raspberry vinaigrette is the way to go. Tables of two to even four can easily share the salumi e formaggio platter ($14.95) with an assortment of cured meats and cheeses as well as olives and roasted red peppers.
Though not even opened for a full month, items that have received most of the attention already are the homemade potato gnocchi ($18.95), which are light and fluffy and served with your choice of sauce: Gorgonzola walnut cream, Tuscan meat or basil pomodoro. Veal and chicken items are featured prominently on the menu with standouts being Chicken La Casetta ($21.95) with sautéed shrimp, Kalamata olives, oven-dried tomatoes and crumbled feta in a white wine sauce, and the Veal alla Contadina ($21.95) with grape tomatoes, red onions, roasted red peppers in a light lemon and garlic sauce served over a bed of capellini. In the latter, flavors of vinegar and citrus playfully combine to coat the pasta and a veal that’s so tender you can cut it with a fork. Desserts are homemade as well, so if you’ve room, go for the Cannoli Scomposti, or deconstructed cannoli ($5.95). It’s great to share as the filling is essentially used as a dip with broken bits of cannoli shells as chips.
The Steelmans didn’t do any advertising for their opening, and so far, everyone who has visited La Casetta has heard about it simply through word of mouth — and word keeps spreading.
“We have doubled our seats every week that we’ve been open,” says Matt of his fortuitous first month. “We’ve had to turn people down. We’ve had full houses.”
Matt already has updates planned for spring for La Casetta, like serving lunch as well as having an outside patio/dining space with live music.
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