WAS IT FATE, OR SOMETHING EVEN STRONGER THAT PULLED A SEASONED BARTENDER INTO A NEW CAREER IN A CHARMING MID19TH CENTURY FORMER CHURCH?

BY GILDA ROGERS • PHOTOS BY TOM ZAPCIC

On the fortuitous day Ayana and her friends found their way to A Salute Italian Restaurant in Matawan, the local quickly knew this was the place where she would continue her bartending journey. The one-name wonder (think Cher, Madonna) was hired shortly thereafter, and recently took over as bar manager.

“My friends and I wanted to make this place our spot; the food was amazing,” she gushed. “I fell in love with the bar, and I could see myself behind it, so I manifested it.”

The chic Italian eatery occupies a red brick corner building that was once a church. For 40 years after that, it became Bart’s Restaurant (shortened from Bartholomew’s, as in St. Bartholomew’s Church), a favorite for family meals, weekend revelry, and special occasions. Its new owners have retained the building’s character and warmth while upgrading the interiors to provide a modern, comfortable setting for families and friends to enjoy and make new festive memories.

Cathedral windows and architectural details are on hand to delight the senses, particularly in the dining area where up to eight guests can dine on the former altar. The reimagined and refreshed bar area comprises a sleek, spacious 30-seat bar and high-top seating.

A salute, a toast that translates to “express friendly feelings before drinking,” is taken seriously here. The hallowed atmosphere is a conversation starter, but the elevated Italian cuisine is the featured attraction, from eight different varieties of Detroit style pizza (gluten-free and cauliflower crusts are available) to appetizers, salads, pastas, and fine meat and seafood. Scratch made desserts include chocolatey Nutella pizza, tartufo, tiramisu, and cannoli.

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“I like the atmosphere,” said Ayana, adding the former church setting gives those inside a pleasant feeling. “You want to do good here.” Practicing what she preaches, Ayana is currently planning the spring/summer cocktail menu. Appropriately, a drink titled the Deacon is intended to uplift spirits, ideal for an after-work awakening. Guests rave over the recipe a refreshing mix of Tres Agaves Bianco, mezcal, Aperol, agave, and fresh lime and its pleasing translucent melon hue.

Then there’s the Pacific Daiquiri, which gets its vivid color from Blue Curacao and in-house guava infused white rum, bursting with tropical flavor and a splash of fresh lemon, and garnished with a peach carnation. It’s essentially a staycation in a glass.

Before finding her way to A Salute, Ayana worked in the Big Apple for eight years at the Times Square EDITION hotel, where she honed her mixology skills. She likened bartending to being a therapist, without the specialized training. She noted she has always liked talking to people and sees every day in the bar/restaurant business as a new day.

“I’ve met so many people who have dreams,” she said. “I get to listen to peoples’ stories, and I give them the best advice that I can. I know 100% from the bottom of my heart that I am always going to be a bartender. I like the stressful environment, where everything seems a little crazy.”

In addition to hosting home barbecues where she whips up cocktail concoctions for friends, she has started a small gourmet mushroom cultivation company, selling to local farms, markets, and restaurants. Her niche is “local, organic, and fresh.”

With summer upon us, Ayana is eager to extend the spirit of A Salute’s hospitality to patrons looking to get out and enjoy the company of others, especially at the eatery’s newly renovated 180-seat outdoor seasonal dining patio that’s loaded with fire pits, a full service bar, live entertainment, and happy hours. There, patrons will be singing the praises of the Epostle Margarita, a righteous drink cleverly named for the Epazote leaves that flavor it.

A Salute Italian Restaurant & Bar 74 Main Street, Matawan / 732.566.0267 / asalute.com