THIS GLOBE TROTTING MIXOLOGIST FOUND COMFORT, SIMPLICITY, AND CAREER SATISFACTION AT AN ENGLISHTOWN ITALIAN RESTAURANT

BY GILDA ROGERS •PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE

If most people could land where they truly want to be in life where work and pleasure merge into one, it’s hard imagine the total societal benefit. Well, that’s the vibe one gets from Sarah Toner, a manager at Nonna’s Citi Cucina.

“I love food and drink, and I can sell them,” said Toner, who’s now a globetrotting food connoisseur, thanks to former staff member, Michele Fitzgerald. In 2016, Fitzgerald auditioned for, competed in, and won the $1 million prize on the hit CBS television show, Survivor.
“Michele brought some of us out to the finale in California,” Toner related. Since then, they meet up annually and venture off to faraway places. In July, the friends rendezvoused in Greece, providing a much anticipated opportunity for Toner to visit a winery, further expanding her knowledge of fare and bottles.

During the past 11 years, Toner has been at Nonna’s, and has built a returning clientele who now refer to the restaurant as their “dining room.” She’s learned the business from the ground up from party planning and creating a winning drink menu to scheduling staff, taking inventory, and being in the front of house one day while expediting in the kitchen the next. She credits her ability to “read people” their personalities and preferences as a pivotal component of customer service.

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That extends to her staff, too, when it comes to serving and mixing cocktails like the “Victoria Secret,” made with coconut rum, Chambord Liqueur, and pineapple juice what Toner referred to as an “entry level” cocktail (sweet but not too strong). The Grapefruit Martini, in contrast, is not for beginners, made with a bracing mix of ruby red grapefruit, vodka, St. Germain liqueur, and freshly squeezed lime juice.

“Drinks don’t always have to be complicated,” noted Toner, while describing her self taught bar skills. In college, while studying to be a nurse, she started bartending at a “divey” spot called Clifton’s in Freehold that no longer exists.

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“I worked in a nursing home before I worked at a restaurant,” she said, calling the experience an awakening moment. She soon decided the food and beverage industry was far more appealing. (“You pick your poison,” she observed.) Subsequently, she landed at Nonna’s and hasn’t looked back.

The manager also makes a habit of going out to eat to sample the competition, and described, with a far off look, dining at a truffle restaurant in France. The fruiting body of the Ascomycete fungus, truffles are highly prized (French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin once referred to them as “the diamond of the kitchen”).

“It was a house situated high up in the mountains where you picked your level of truffle intensity,” she recalled. In another moment in France, a bartender made her a Bloody Mary, which she described as having “the cleanest, most refreshing vodka and fresh tomatoes that I have ever tasted.” She also indulged in escargot.

“It was amazing,” she said of her Gallic dining experience. “They do food right.” Last year, Toner visited Hawaii, where she found that “everything is super fresh.” Back home at Nonna’s, she noted that Chicken Parmesan is the restaurant’s best selling dish offering, “It’s simple, but just lovely.”

Nonna’s Citi Cucina
190 Route 9 North, Englishtown / 732.536.9050 / nonnasnj.net