THIS ROME-BORN CHEF OFFERS A FRESH TAKE ON HOME-STYLE ITALIAN CUISINE WITH PINCHES OF CALIFORNIAN AND CARIBBEAN INFLUENCES
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI • PHOTOS BY VIOLET MAYER PHOTOGRAPHY
The elevated contemporary Italian cuisine that draws fans to Freehold’s Solo Trattoria has its roots in Rome, Italy, with influences from a lifetime of cooking chef/owner Piergiorgio “Giorgio” Ceciarelli experienced in Southern California, Mexico, Florida, and the Caribbean. Opened in 2005 and located in the heart of historic Freehold’s business district, the BYOB’s wall of windows looks out onto the bustling action while the tasteful, warm interior redirects attention to the star of the show the food. The restaurant boasts high ratings from Open Table and Trip Advisor for the food, atmosphere, staff, and service, “especially owner Giorgio’s caring, personal, hands-on style, and flair with inventive dishes.”
Born in Rome, Italy, in 1965 where he began cooking with his family as a child Ceciarelli moved to California at 18, residing in San Diego for six years and graduating from the University of San Diego.
He relocated to Cancun in 1988, living, working, and frequently clubbing there for three years before moving to another sun-soaked hotspot: Miami. There, he had to learn to cook American versions of Italian foods he was unfamiliar with.
“I think anyone born outside of America wants to come here,” Ceciarelli opined, citing “the lure of the culture and music. When the opportunity arose, I jumped at it and never looked back.” His ancestral family still resides in Italy, and he visits frequently.
Ceciarelli’s father and grandfather “took food very seriously.” The acclaimed chef remembers them traveling 90 minutes in one direction to purchase their favorite bread, then trekking elsewhere to procure the perfect sausage.
Once in California, the young cuisiner spent weekends with friends in Baja and Cancun, Mexico, learning to speak Spanish and becoming enamored with the area’s renowned seafood and cuisine. After working at several restaurants there, he met two brothers from Naples, Italy, who built their own wood-fired pizza oven.
“When you see the flame and feel the dough in your hands, it becomes an addiction,” Ceciarelli said. “My friends and I wouldn’t eat processed foods, so after clubbing we would make pasta and have different dishes at each of our homes,” Ceciarelli related. “Everything tastes better at 2 o’clock in the morning.” Flash forward to today, and all the pastas at Solo Trattoria are made fresh in-house daily, one of the restaurant’s many allures.
Ceciarelli fondly recalls his businessman father visiting Cancun to scout locations for new restaurants and hotels.
“Once, he brought a suitcase filled with Parmigiano cheese and espresso from our favorite stores,” Ceciarelli recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t come from a family of restaurateurs, but with my mother and grandmother, Sunday dinners were an event. The passion of doing it and doing it right led me to the kitchen.”
Cancun is where Ceciarelli met his wife Antoinette, a vacationing Italian-American from Brooklyn, when they locked eyes at the club. After a long-distance relationship during which the budding restaurateur moved to Florida, Ceciarelli asked her father for her hand, and the pair married in 1989.
He launched his first restaurant, Solo Pizza, with two friends in Miami, eventually becoming the sole owner, hence the name. He was lauded as the area’s “Best Restaurant Owner of 2001.” The Ceciarellis lived and worked in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, where their sons Michael and Giorgio were born, for 16 years, often traveling to the Caribbean and sampling each island’s cuisines along the way.
Antoinette desired to return to her family, some of whom had relocated to Manalapan. As Ceciarelli was between restaurants, the timing felt right. After some investigating, they settled in Monmouth County.
“I love Monmouth County,” he said. “After so many years of living in the tropics, it reminded me of the hills outside of Rome. The four seasons here give great energy, the rebirth in spring, fresh produce in the summer. Florida and the Caribbean don’t have that.” The pair opened their restaurant Coal on Route 9 in Manalapan in 2010, and after a successful run, they sold it five years ago.
Located in the county seat across from the Monmouth County Administration Building, and blocks from the Superior Court complex, Solo Trattoria attracts diners from judges to lawyers and jurors. “Our customers know they can count on us to respect their timing and get their order right,” Ceciarelli said. “The food is ready when they arrive.” Daily specials featuring steaks and pastas are tailored to the seasons and based on market availability, with hearty fare taking precedence this winter. Summer menus at Solo Trattoria lean lighter, featuring seafood and southern Italian creations.
Among guests’ favorite dishes are the homemade lasagna classica all’emiliana made with béchamel, ravioli of the day, pasta carbonara, prime steaks, and fiochetti pere e asiago (beggar’s purses with pear asiago in a walnut sauce). The menu also offers family meal selections to feed four to five people. The dessert menu features traditional Italian favorites, a cheesecake of the day, and homemade biscotti with cannoli cream.
“We try to bring in the best ingredients, whether from Italy or locally, including the flour we use,” said the owner’s son, Giorgio, a chef at Solo Trattoria. The younger Ceciarelli keeps 250 recipes from his mom, dad, and a chef he worked for at Pasquale Jones in New York, in a book. “High gluten is hard for the body to break down. We spend a little more to bring in a product that will make you feel good after you eat it.”
The younger Giorgio embarks on his own food tasting trips to different Italian regions to source ingredients, absorb food history, and learn new recipes and techniques. Together with his younger brother Michael, he is opening a new restaurant, La Lupa, on Route 33 in Manalapan, a different spin on the wood-burning theme with small plates, pizzas, steaks, and more. Michael will run the front-of-house while the back-of-house will be helmed by Giorgio.
“My sons worked with me since they were young,” the elder Ceciarelli said, adding Solo Trattoria is fortunate to have a solid staff of talented cooks and servers, some of whom have been there for years.
“This business is a passion,” Ceciarelli said. “It’s been a great journey.”
7 South Street, Freehold / 732.780.2337 / solotrattoria.com