The restaurant industry is notorious for high turnover rates, with employees rarely returning to the same kitchen twice once they walk out the door. But for chef Oscar Toro, who was part of Aqua Blu’s launch in 2011 and later rejoined the Toms River restaurant in 2021, coming back felt like coming home.

When Aqua Blu first opened its doors, owners Caterina and Vincenzo Varriale were on the hunt for a chef to helm their ambitious new restaurant project. Their daughter recommended Toro, a personal friend and veteran of several high-end locales in New York City. Toro initially signed on to help the Varriales get the project up and running. What he didn’t know at the time was the commitment would prove to be anything but temporary

“I said, I’ll find you a chef and a staff and set you up,” Toro said. “And then we just couldn’t find the right person. None of the candidates who walked through the door were the right fit. So I said, you know what, I’m going to do this. I’m going to stay.”

After a successful four-year run, Toro left Aqua Blu to continue cultivating his skills in kitchens across the globe, with stints in Taipei, Singapore, Japan, and eventually Shanghai, where he spent the first year of the COVID lockdown. After he returned to the States, he met up with the Varriales, whom he had kept in close contact with since his departure.


“I kept such a good relationship with them that when I came back, I just jumped right back in the saddle,” Toro said, who rejoined the Aqua Blu ménage in October 2021. “It was as if I had never left. I saw so many faces I hadn’t seen in so long, and everybody was asking me to bring certain dishes back. It was a really nice homecoming.”

Upon his return, Toro helped usher in a revamped operation at Aqua Blu, building on the restaurant’s reputation for creative Italian cooking and fresh house-made pastas while infusing techniques and flavor combinations he picked up during his time abroad. (One of Toro’s favorite late-night bites, for example, are dumplings with shaved pecorino and crispy garlic.) Toro estimates the restaurant’s clientele is 70% regulars, so there’s constant pressure to keep the menu fresh and exciting. The lead chef himself will often cook custom meals for longtime regulars, providing he has the ingredients on hand.

One of Toro’s signature dishes is a braised short rib, an original menu item from the early days. Available every fall and winter, the dish is classic comfort food: smooth mashed potatoes alongside juicy short ribs braised with apples, wine, stock, and fermented Italian fish sauce, with notes of warm spice from plenty of star anise, cinnamon, and ginger. (It’s been a longtime staple, and not only for the restaurant’s loyal followers; Toro is an avid fisherman and often freezes portions of the dish to bring along for trips.)

Seasonal cooking is all the rage in the present-day culinary scene thanks to a swelling interest in how fresh ingredients can elevate a dish. Because of his longstanding relation – ships with tri-state distributors, Toro is able to source fresh, seasonal produce from local Silverton Farms and prime meats from Pat LaFrieda. In the summer, the arrival of Silver Queen corn at the restaurant is a sort of holiday, incorporated into a dish with Barnegat Bay scallops the size of golf balls, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and Thai basil. In Italian cuisine, where simplicity is key, seasonal cooking is the secret to home-run recipes.

“I go with the seasons,” Toro said. “It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me from getting bored and it keeps our customers coming back. In the summer it’s roast pork. In the winter it’s short rib. There’s nothing out of season here.”

One of Aqua Blu’s primary features that pulled Toro back in is the atmosphere. He considers the restaurant a community hub in Toms River, a gathering place for summertime crowds and locals alike. It’s a far cry from the 1,000-guests-a-night restaurants where he cut his teeth, and he likes it that way. As Toro and the Varriales look toward the year ahead, they want to continue expanding the restaurant’s already robust events calendar, which even through the winter features weekly live music and DJs in addition to private events.

“I want Aqua Blu to become more of an event space,” Toro said. “We do events really well, especially weddings and birthday parties. We go over the top with these crazy spreads. The food’s plated beautifully. So I personally enjoy it a lot. We have so much more to offer people.”

Today, more than ten years after Aqua Blu served its first plate of pasta, Toro considers the Varriales a second family. It’s a big reason why he came back in the first place: with no shortage of opportunities in the industry, he put a premium on the partnership they’ve built over the years. For the chef, when you have a good thing going, you stick around.

“Cathy is the third number in my phone, right behind my mom and sister,” Toro said. “And that’s partly why I work so hard: she’s like a second mom, and who wants to disappoint their mother? At the end of the day, I run the kitchen the way we both want it run, and that’s why it works.”


Aqua Blu Kitchen & Cocktails

3410 NJ-37, Toms River 732.270.1180 /