No flights are needed to experience this brand of old world splendor
Debuting her food in a 900-square-foot pizzeria in 1993, serving slices to a mostly take-out clientele, Angelina Malerba’s introduction to the Staten Island food scene was small—but followed by rapid growth.
“The restaurant was originally called Mona Lisa Pizzeria and we occu- pied a very small section of that Jefferson Boulevard strip mall,” noted Vincent Malerba, Angelina’s son and current co-owner of her eponymous eatery. “When the restaurant next door became available, we rented it. Then another shop became available and we rented that, too. Within a few years we occupied five of seven stores in the shopping center.”
Mona Lisa Pizzeria slowly morphed into a full-fledged, upscale Italian restaurant and catering service.
“When we acquired the third store, we made it into a party room which gradually progressed into a catering facility,” Malerba recalled. “But we kept things separate, maintaining the pizzeria as a take-out operation
and offering up the party room for a variety of functions.”
Over the next 15 years, the Malerba family renovated, revamped, and basically restructured both its Annadale location and home- style Italian menu, bringing a mix of upscale décor and traditional but contemporary cuisine to Staten Island’s South Shore. The combo lured scores of foodies to the trendy locale on a weekly basis.
“We were a small restaurant and yet we were booked solid every weekend,” Malerba said, smiling. Local lore that reserva- tions were hard to come by and praise for dishes such as the carpaccio and risotto only made the dining room more popular.
“We built our reputation on great food, and even better ser- vice,” noted Malerba, who actually started working at the res- taurant as a dishwasher when he was 14.
“We are a family ourselves,” he continued. “So it has always been important for us to treat all of our guests as an extended part of that family.”
Three years ago, and after much deliberation, the Malerba family decided to relocate the deep-rooted family business.
“For so many years, we did so well at that location, but what we really wanted was to pay a mortgage and no longer rent,” Malerba explained. “So, we started scouting out different spots and when we came upon this site we simply fell in love. The sun was setting, the view was incredible. It was just a perfect fit.”
So, Angelina’s moved its trademark ambiance and food to Ellis Street in Tottenville (the former site of the Tottenville Inn). The restaurant recently celebrated its third anniversary in the new loca- tion—which was elegantly renovated to suit the business’s upscale theme.
“Everything is brand new inside,” Malerba pointed out, describ- ing the space’s hand-carved bar, cherry-wood floor-to-ceiling wine racks, plush leather booths, and surrounding ring of French doors.
“The first level features a mosaic floor custom made in Italy. The other levels feature leather, marble, and copper floors and all three levels have balconies overlooking the water. We wanted to recreate a Tuscan villa here on Staten Island, and I think that’s exactly what we did.”
Additional trees and flowers were recently added to the land- scape of the building to contribute a villa-like feel and to accommo- date many of the outdoor parties the restaurant hosts.
“We have the sunset every night, an outdoor tent, and some pri- vate gazebos,” Malerba said, noting that Angelina’s has become a popular spot for weddings and other major occasions.
“Guests can have their ceremony on the water, and I think that’s a big draw.”
It’s that type of catering that has taken the Malerba’s business from small pizzeria to big time bistro.
“The catering end of the business has probably been the biggest key to our success,” Malerba said. “We host a lot of small parties for 50 to 60 guests—even parties of 100 to 150. It’s those type of functions that have virtually quadrupled our bottom line. Next year, most of May, June, and July is already booked.”
Angelina’s recently introduced an outside catering service too, which can provide off-site food for more than 400 guests, though a smaller, at- home dinner service is the latest venture for the burgeoning restaurant.
“The dinner parties are for between eight and 20 guests,” Malerba said. “They’re hosted in your home and everything is provided. It’s growing very rapidly through referrals, and for me that’s the biggest compliment you can receive. If a guest books because they enjoyed your food and service at another event, then you’re doing something right.”
In the dining room, the focus is on fresh, with a menu that changes daily to highlight seasonal ingredients. Chef Marco Zuccala has been at the helm for the past two years.
“He’s been huge success for us,” Malerba said. “Business has increased more than 30 percent since he arrived. He has a great person- ality and great enthusiasm in the kitchen. The clients simply love him.”
Under Zuccala’s direction, dishes like fresh Branzino, porterhouse for two, and the garden-fresh Arugula Salad with lemon dressing dom- inate the menu. Malerba, his mother, Angelina, and sister Christina work hard to keep the family tradition alive.
“My mom is always on the floor chatting with guests, cleaning tables, and serving wine,” Malerba said. “As owners, we’re very hands on. Last week, a dishwasher didn’t show, so I was in the kitchen washing dishes.”
The family takes additional pride in the fact that their restaurant now serves an international roster of guests.
“We have been serving Staten Islanders for almost two decades,” Malerba said. “But in our new location, we see patrons from Germany, Japan, and beyond. Since the site is the last stop on the train, we’ve witnessed a good deal of guests traveling to New York City who are venturing into our borough sightseeing. It’s been amazing to see this range of customers taking the ferry…coming in for both lunch and din- ner.”
But the Malerba family is simply content with how the average Staten Island food connoisseur has propelled their business to success. “We’ve always listened to our customers, and I think that is truly the
key to success,” the restaurant owner concluded. “We morphed from a small pizzeria because we listened to what our clients had to say. We remained humble and allowed them to help us find direction. That’s what made our restaurant thrive.”
Photos: By Vinnie Amessé © www.amessephoto.com