FROM HIS HOME KITCHEN TO A MANALAPAN MAINSTAY: HOW THIS CHEF BUILT A LEGACY RESTAURANT BASED ON A LOVE FOR HERITAGE, CAMARADERIE, AND AUTHENTIC ITALIAN FLAVORS
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
It’s a motto that runs far deeper than snappy catch phrase. “Where Family Means Everything” is printed on T-shirts and proudly posted all over the Ruocco’s website. For Stephen Ruocco, who runs the contemporary Italian-American haunt in Manalapan alongside his wife Angela, daughters Isabella and Gianna, and son Stephen Jr., the four words are so much more than a slogan they are the reason Ruocco’s exists.
Cooking has always been a family affair in the Ruocco household. As a kid, Stephen learned firsthand from his Neapolitan and Sicilian grandparents. He learned to make carbonara when he was ten and marsala when he was 12. He’s always been something of a culinary sponge, garnering insight and inspiration from every chef he encounters. (Today, Ruocco and his family go out to eat every Monday in a never-ending quest to try new restaurants.)
After briefly running a sandwich shop in his native Bensonhurst, Ruocco moved to New Jersey and took a position in the elevator business that allowed him to work from home, uninterested in any job that would force him to stray too far from his kitchen. During that time, he developed the recipes that would one day become the Ruocco’s menu.
“I was working from home, and I would do a test kitchen every day,” Ruocco said. “My employees, family, neighbors, and friends would all be the taste testers. I would post meals on Facebook and everybody said, ‘You’ve got to open up a place again!’”
Ruocco’s, which first opened on Route 9 in Howell and later relocated a few addresses down the road to Manalapan, is a fusion of the dishes Ruocco grew up eating at home, staples of the Italian-American community in Benson hurst, dishes he’s fallen in love with over the years. The Sicilian rice balls and the panelle plate, for example, are Benson hurst specialties. (Panelle, Sicilian chickpea fritters, are often served on sandwiches, though Ruocco shakes things up and serves them in a platter with ricotta and fresh parm.)
“When we first came out here almost seven years ago, I believe we were one of the first restaurants doing panelle,” Ruocco said. “Now there are a couple different places that do it, but I stick true to my roots. I don’t change anything. We started off with the best product, and I keep to that.”
Ruocco prides himself on his stream lined menu. There’s not a lot of shuffling, and that’s the point. As the chef pointed out, these are his favorite dishes, the things he would (and does) eat every day. Ruocco’s is not interested in keeping up with trends or copying competitors. The chef doesn’t put a dish on the menu simply because it’s in vogue or gaining traction on social media. His menu, from the grilled octopus that opens the meal to the toasted almond cake that closes it, is a love letter to the best of Italian cuisine.
When diners walk into Ruocco’s, the first thing they see is an oversized sign that reads “Family” pasted over the unused brick oven. (“We don’t do pizza,” noted Ruocco.) Every day in the restaurant is indeed a family affair. Ruocco’s daughter, Isabella, runs the front of the house, along with his wife Angela and daughter Gianna, which allows Stephen to run the kitchen. As anyone who has worked with a family member knows, it can be an experience unlike any other.
“It’s a comedy show,” Ruocco said. “It’s like we’re at the house screaming at each other. But people love it. At the end of the day, we say goodbye, we love each other, kiss each other, and that’s it.”
Business is booming at Ruocco’s, so much so that the owner has plans in the works to open another location in Florida. When the times comes, he plans to hand the reins of the Manalapan locale over to his daughter Isabella, who already handles all the scheduling and paperwork for the restaurant. Stephen and his son, Stephen Jr. (who manages the Ruocco’s website, reservations, and POS systems), will spearhead the Sunshine State outpost, where Stephen Jr. currently resides. It’s all part of Ruocco’s larger plan to leave his children a legacy that will last.
“I never had this,” he said. “My father never had a business to give to me. I’m building these businesses to give to my kids. When it’s time for me to retire, they have something that they can fall back on.”
But that day isn’t in the near future. Today, every day is busy at Ruocco’s, with an ever-growing cast of regulars keeping the reservation books full. Even amid the daily challenges of steering a restaurant through the pandemic, Ruocco prioritizes customer service; in his mind, the “family” in his motto doesn’t only apply to people who share his last name. Customers first lured in by the tortellini carbonara or the chicken pink panther (a cult-favorite chicken parmesan finished with vodka sauce), sooner or later end up a part of the Ruocco’s family.
“Our customers become friends, and from friends, they become family,” Ruocco said. “We go to dinner with our customers the days that we’re off. My daughter Bella, I would say 90% of the people have her cell number to call her directly if they want reservations, catering, anything.”
There can be a lot of bluster in the restaurant industry, unfounded claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but when the Ruocco clan says that, to them, family means everything, people believe them.
345 Rt 9 South, Manalapan / 732.851.5359 / ruoccoson9.com