RED BANK’S BUONA SERA HAS BEEN SERVING CLASSIC ITALIAN DISHES FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES

BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS © AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY

When Christopher Mariani brought a multi-level, old world Italian dining experience to Red Bank in 1999, the odds were not in his favor. Yes, the posh Maple Avenue strip, with a couple of designer boutiques and the illustrious Count Basie Theatre, was an attractive retail hub. But a fine dining restaurant? Naysayers told the budding restaurateur that those types of businesses historically shutter within six months.

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Mariani, proudly refuting that pessimism with a history of solid success, and offering a few reasons for the longevity.

“I know my demographic, and I cook for the customer,” he said. “Whatever they want, I’ll make it. Isn’t that the reason why people dine out?”

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Mariani, who is both proprietor and chef, was no newbie to the food industry when he launched Buona Sera, which has now become a local institution and one of the most frequented eateries in the Red Bank district. He opened his first restaurant in 1983, a small seasonal trattoria one block off the beach in Seaside Park.

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“Café Al Fresco was more like a sandwich shop,” Mariani said, detailing the business he built when he was just 23. “But we grew and expanded into fine dining during its 17 year run. When I started toying around with the idea of opening Buona.

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Sera, I knew I wanted to produce something that was exclusively fine dining, something with old school quality and character and a fresh, eclectic flair.”

He chose the Red Bank area because of its charm.

“It has an urban feel smack dab in the middle of suburbia, and the demographics are great,” Mariani said. “I knew from day one that this is where I had to be.”

Located adjacent to the Count Basie Theatre, and on a busy corner, Buona Sera’s charms start with its five dining rooms, designed to mimic the style of a Tuscan villa. There’s also a second floor loungestyle catering hall that seats 150, and its massive wine cellar holds some 20,000 bottles.

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The menu is filled with Mariani’s own recipes, all made with “the freshest ingredients. Our fish is brought in daily, we dry age our own prime USDA steaks, and our veal chops are the best this country has to offer,” he said. “If there are extraordinary seasonings and ingredients out there somewhere, I’ll find them.”

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Some of Buona Sera’s most popular dishes include the Pork Osso Bucco, slow braised and served over vegetable risotto; the Oven Roasted Chicken Cacciatore, deboned and served with a plum tomato pepper onion sauce; and Buona Sera’s famous veal chops, served one of five ways think lightly breaded and fried, or stuffed with mozzarella, prosciutto, and shiitake mushrooms.

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The chef/owner also describes his wine list as having the best selection in the Northeast, no less its highlights including a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon “Artemis,” a La Scolca Gavi di Gavi Black Label (a white from the Piemonte region), and the Louis Roederer “Cristal” Champagne.

“I’ve challenged Martin Shanken from Wine Spectator to find a better, more value oriented list, because I don’t believe it exists,” he said. “I have a wonderful Italian portfolio and a vast amount of California and French varietals no one comes close to the diversity we offer.”

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Specials change daily, and the menu is altered four times a year, allowing Mariani to cook according to season. “In my personal opinion, fall is the best time to cook,” he noted. “From right now until Christmas; I love working with all of the seasonal ingredients.”

The restaurateur credits the quality of his food and service to the workers and other staff members who have surrounded him for the past 35 years. “I have such a dedicated crew,” he said. “There is no ‘I’ in this kitchen, only ‘we.’ I might not have a quasi-celebrity chef here, but I do have a group of damn good cooks.”

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Still, after close to 40 years in the business, Mariani explained that it’s important for him to evolve.

“We consistently renovate our dining rooms and update the menu, always staying ahead of the curve,” he said. “We’re good at what we do because we’re always consistent, but we also make it our goal to exceed the expectations of our regular customer base constantly educating our sta and utilizing new skills to keep diners satisfied.”

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For Mariani, it’s a labor of love.

“The passion still burns within me to do better than I did yesterday,” he concluded. “I am dedicated to my customers because for so many years, they have been dedicated to me.”

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Buona Sera
50 Maple Avenue, Red Bank 732.530.5858 /
buona sera.com