Salvatore Scarlata’s motto is “cooking with passion.”
The native of Sicily, who demonstrated a flair for traditional Italian cooking as a young boy, chopped and diced his way through a lifelong pursuit of creating the “perfect dining experience” for his guests; a cozy environment where they could reliably find perfect atmosphere, food and service.
After moving to the U.S. to expand his cooking repertoire, and logging in many hours apprenticing at local five-star restaurants, he realized his dream of restaurant ownership in 2007 with the creation of Vidalia Restaurant.
Situated in a quaint and homey space in Lawrenceville, N.J., the eatery specializes in offering consistently good food and inventive dishes created with a personal touch.
“I started out as a salad boy at a steak house and went on to cook for five-star restaurants around the area before I finally opened my own restaurant,” he says. “I grew up in the restaurant business, and my parents, who immigrated from Italy, had a pizzeria. But that wasn’t my thing. I wanted to branch out.”
In this week’s Recipe for Success, Scarlata describes his vision that led him to create Vidalia Restaurant.
Q: How did you come to start Vidalia Restaurant?
Vidalia was originally the Glass Onion, which was owned by another gentleman. I’m actually the third owner in this location, and the restaurant’s name before me was Vidalia. I thought it was important to keep the name for consistency reasons, and I bought it because it seemed like the ideal spot to have the experience of owning a business on my own. It’s small, and only has 10 big tables, so I can create, and get feedback on my food in an intimate setting.
Q: How did you attract your first customer?
I actually got a really nice break after a not-so-easy start. I figured I’d attract the old customers from the name recognition and good following, but this turned out not to be the case.
I opened on a snowy day in January and I had one table in the restaurant. It was really, really slow. And, I was thinking of going home to see my wife and kids. I figured I’d do some paperwork.
But for some reason I decided to stay to see if more customers came in. And a short time later, about five people came and ordered all different salads, and appetizers and entrees.
At the end of the meal, the lady called me over to her and announces, “I’m Susan from the Trenton Times, and I’m here to review you.” They had some pretty good things to say about me. And she said she’d put it in the paper in two weeks.
I was pretty nervous, but when I opened the paper I was thrilled to see the review had the word ‘Excellent’ on it! Vidalia was given five stars, and from that point on people started to call me. People at the Trenton Times later told me that it was almost unheard of to get such an impressive rating. Right after that the phone started ringing off the hook.
Q: How have you remained consistent?
I go out and meet my customers and ask for their feedback. I need to know how my food tastes. My goal is to be simple, consistent, and fresh. I work out of a 400 square-foot kitchen, and it’s very tight. But the quality is there everyday because I’m always shopping for fresh ingredients, and I’m very present among my guests.
Q: What has been Vidalia’s biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for myself is to be up-and-coming with the food trends, and creating fresh ideas. I don’t pay attention to what other people are doing, but I do keep track of trends, which I try hard to incorporate in a menu that offers simple foods, which are not overpowered by sauce.
Experimenting with food requires customers to have a certain amount of bravery. I created a special with blank ink linguini with sea urchins once, and customers didn’t order it. I had to give them a little taste, on the house, to see if they liked it. I love getting the feedback! And with that dish, people started to come in and ask for it after they sampled it for free.
We also do a Brazilian tiger fish, broiled and served Parmesan risotto and with two Panko-encrusted shrimp and broccoli rabe.
Q: What is your most famous dish?
My duck. We do a berry glaze and just cook it right. There’s no trick about it; it’s just cooked to perfection. We serve it with French string beans and sweet mashed potatoes.
Q: What are your demographics?
We cater to families, children are very welcome, and a lot of in-house parties, baby showers, bridal showers, and communions. We welcome that: we don’t turn away business, especially in this bad economy.
Q: How have you coped with the softer restaurant economy?
I think it’s the way you treat your customers. People remember that and they remember the service. People will spend their hard-earned money at places where they get the return. It’s all about providing service, atmosphere and food quality.
Q: Tell me about your niche and how you found it.
We are physically located across the street from Lawrenceville Prep High School, a private boarding school. We’re lucky we have that type of location. During the parents’ weekends, and other school events, we see an uptick in business. And in the warmer months, we transform the parking lot into a slice of Italy, with a fountain, streaming lights and music in a villa.
Q: What one line of advice would you give to someone trying to start his or her own restaurant?
My suggestion is, if you have not grown up in the business or you don’t have a passion, or you have no schooling, don’t do it.
It’s a lot of hours, stress during the busy season, and it takes toll on families because you don’t have the weekends and the normal 9-to-5 hours. Even though you have a day off, you’re always thinking about what’s going to happen next, what’s going to break down. It’s the type of business that requires constant attention, and it demands that if you’re going to do successfully, you have to jump in with both feet.