FEAST ON SWEEPING VIEWS OF THE ATLANTIC ALONG WITH RUSTIC ITALIAN FARE AT THIS POSH ASBURY PARK EATERY
BY AMANDA MCCOY PHOTOS BY VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY
On the south end of Asbury Park’s historic boardwalk, which stretches nearly a mile along the Atlantic Ocean and oatmealtinted sand, a chic, airy eatery buzzes with the sound of laughter and clinking wine glasses. Stella Marina translates to “star of the sea” in Italian, and the restaurant fittingly floods each of the four dining areas with sweeping views of the ocean. Opening a restaurant in this coastal Jersey Shore town had long intrigued owner Joseph Cetrulo, who opened Sirena Ristorante a few miles north in Long Branch in 2006, and the stars aligned in the late aughts when developers began restoring the different pavilions dotting the boardwalk. Stella Marina opened its doors on 800 Ocean Avenue in 2009.
“I saw the future and potential of Asbury Park,” noted Cetrulo, a chef turned restaurateur with more than 40 years of experience in the culinary industry. “I saw that it could be a great location. It’s a wonderful beachy area. And while the summer is definitely our season, we remain open and busy all winter long.”
A classic Italian restaurant, Stella Marina serves all the staples. The meatballs are crafted of a house blend of veal, beef, and pork, and the ravioli is stuffed with wild porcini mushrooms and topped with truffle crema. A wood-burning oven sizzles scratch-made pizzas, and the seafood is fresh and crisp.
When designing the menu, Cetrulo had over a decade of culinary experience in native Italian kitchens to call upon. From the mid-90s through 2005, the chef trained in several restaurants in Italy, from Capri up to the Switzerland border. The son of Italian parents, he cultivated and sharpened techniques he was introduced to at a young age, describing his parents and grandmother as “excellent Italian cooks.” When he returned to the U.S., he brought with him a sweeping repertoire of different dishes and styles, and an appetite to bring rustic Italian fare to the Garden State.
“When designing the menu, Cetrulo had over a decade of culinary experience in native Italian kitchens to call upon.”
The two-story venue that would one day serve scratch-made spaghetti and a locally famous branzino sat vacant for years before the city began restoring the boardwalk. Upon securing the space, Cetrulo completely gutted the interior. He filled it with rich woods, rustic tiles and stones, and dramatic broken wine bottle chandeliers. Massive floor-to-ceiling windows steep the interiors in light and sea views, while the patio and upper level terrace offer unobstructed vistas of the beach and boardwalk.
“I wanted to create an atmosphere that was warm, comfortable, and fun,” he noted. “I pulled inspiration from all the places I loved during my time in Italy. We also utilize the upstairs as a separate event space; we’ve hosted everything from weddings to anniversaries and birthday parties.”
The restaurant is open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner, with an all-day dinner menu on Sundays. Fan favorite starters include scampi arrabbiata (shrimp accompanied by garlic, parsley, chili, and broccoli rabe) and crisp calamari served with fennel, lemons, cherry peppers, zucchini, and marinara. Mains span a variety of flavors from both land and sea, including a pap pardelle Bolognese topped with fennel seeds and mascarpone that the owner described as a must-try for first-time diners. Italians are serious about their wine, and Stella Marina’s menu is nearly 400-bottles long, including several high-end labels from the cellar. Enjoy a rich chardonnay from Burgundy, France, with scallops or salmon, or accompany filet mignon with a 94-point Amarone della Valpolicella from northeastern Italy or a 100-point Dominus Estate from Napa Valley. For non-grape drinkers, there are domestic and international beers and a seasonally changing cocktail list.
Leading the kitchen is chef Martin Ramos, who began his tenure at Stella Marina as a line cook almost ten years ago, eventually graduating to sous chef before taking over the reins. The general manager, Bryan Keehm, has also been with Cetrulo for several years, serving as the assistant manager until elevating to the GM position earlier this year.
Hiring the right people to oversee the day-to-day operations was vital; when asked the owner’s recipe for success, Cetrulo explained that while delicious food, service, and ambiance are fundamentally important, the single most vital ingredient is hospitality.
“It’s about making the customer feel you are doing the best to make them happy, which is the hardest thing for a restaurant operator,” he said. “It’s the hardest to train. You can teach people how to cook and how to seat customers, but do it in a hospitable way, that’s the challenge. At the end of the day, it’s the most important thing in a restaurant.”
800 Ocean Ave, Asbury Park / 732.775.7776 / stellamarinarestaurant.com