Article contributed by Ryan Gallagher, 20 Lemons LLC
There are more than 19,000 restaurants in the Garden State. In order to make it in the crowded, ultra-competitive New Jersey restaurant industry, you gotta have some balls. Meatballs, to be exact—as NJ’s Lotsa Balls proves spherical meat has no boundaries. In another case, meatballs are just one part of the “Italian sensibility” at Il Nido where the management carries the cojones to make a stand for organic ingredients.
Il Nido of Marlboro and Lotsa Balls of Metuchen are two Jersey food joints that were recognized in January’s “Best New Restaurant,” according to NJ Monthly. Research and some in-depth conversation were required to find out what it takes to make it in such a high-competition market. For many reasons, including courage, culinary expertise, devoted management, and a bunch of love for their craft—Il Nido and Lotsa Balls stand out.
Two Joe’s—Folgore and Voller—head the Il Nido crew, respectively managing and preparing the all-organic ingredients that makeup the restaurant’s ever-changing menu.
When Il Nido (“The Nest”) opened in February 2019, Folgore the owner had been contemplating a restaurant where he wouldn’t have to worry about the origin of the menu items. Il Nido’s menu shifts weekly, while the restaurant acquires ingredients as they are made available. “Wild-caught,” “farm-raised,” and “grass-fed” are all adjectives used to describe the food found in Il Nido’s kitchen.
“We do things very simply. It’s more like Italy in that nature—all of the hours go into shopping as much as they do the finished product,” said Head Chef, Joseph Voller. Voller’s background lies in Philadelphia where he’s worked years in notable kitchens like Le Virtù and Brigantessa, as well as at Eno Terra in Kingston, NJ and finally at Il Nido. “We’re detail-oriented with a fine dining background—but, we don’t want to do that fine dining anymore. We believe what grows together, goes together. And what grows in season and what’s close to here is kinda what we serve.”
On the other hand, Jason Penedos along with his partners James Katims and Juan Zaldivar have recently pushed the envelope on the classic Italian meatball.
In certain circles, the crew’s Sicilian meatball at their longstanding restaurant project, Civile Cucina Italiana is second-to-none—with big name fans like that of George Bush Sr.
In Summer 2019, the crew opened Lotsa Balls, a second restaurant solely dedicated to the highly regarded meatballs. While the name brings about a chuckle for the simple-minded, it was no secret that a restaurant completely dedicated to ball-shaped food could be a viable project. The aesthetic is 70’s retro with an emphasis on family fun.
“We’re not like these ‘Johnny Goombatz’ kinda guys. The thing is, my partners and I are big sports fans. So, it was sort of a combination of sports (balls) and meatballs,” said Owner, Jason Penedos. “The Sicilian meatballs on our menu are my grandmother’s recipe—we’ve had them at Civile for years. The meatballs are so popular, and you can do a million things with meatballs—so, why not try to base something around it? For about a year, we did weekly meatball specials at Civile to gather ideas of what people liked and didn’t like, and that built the menu here.”
Both restaurants have found themselves a specific niche concept. Each eatery is an extension of Italian cooking, and both aim to be the best at what they do inside their segment of the NJ restaurant market.
Il Nido’s approach is not conventional compared to most restaurants. The management demands high-end ingredients that change with the seasons. What’s more, the eatery employs a smaller staff that are asked to take on more responsibility in exchange for a healthier wage.
“If we want to be the best at what we do, we want to surround ourselves with people that are the best at what they do,” explained Chef Voller. “Four Story Hill Farm is mainly where I get my proteins. I call them on Sunday, Tuesdays they’re slaughtered, and Wednesday they come to the restaurant.”
“[Four Story Hill Farm] raises about twelve hogs a year, just for me. They’re raised on organic vegetables—no corn, barley, or any of the things that these other pigs eat. And when you eat this pig, it’s the greatest pig you’re ever gonna eat,” claims Voller. “It’s different than having pork chops on your menu all the time. We have mangalitsa but you might come today and it’s scaloppini, the next day it’s tomahawk chop, and then it’s sausage—we just cycle through the whole animal and when that one’s gone, we do it again.”
Lotsa Balls is situated in downtown Metuchen during a time where the small town has never been busier. What’s more, Penedos at the new location can “hit a nine iron” to the train station—a big deal for walk-up customers and those traveling to Metuchen. Despite any noise surrounding the new restaurant, Penedos and company take the creation of their meatballs and each dish’s accompanying sauce quite seriously.
“There was a little stir before we opened, the people said the name might be inappropriate, but it’s far from that,” said Penedos. “There’s no doubt, people are very particular about their meatballs. And the sauce is important. It’s not that run of the mill purée sauce—you can eat our sauce with a fork. Plus, we’re not character typed to just Italian. We have mac and cheese balls, buffalo chicken meatballs, Swedish meatballs, and we’re hoping to tap into vegan customers, gluten-free, and healthier fare.”
Since opening, each restaurant has begun to establish a devoted customer base. They are both lucky enough to have industry connections from past restaurant endeavors that have been fruitful for the promotion of their current projects. However, Il Nido and Lotsa Balls have gained customers through very different marketing schemes.
“There is a lot of pay-to-play PR—we do some of that occasionally. But really, we come here, buy the best ingredients, try to be one of the best restaurants, and then hope that people notice,” explained Voller when asked about how Il Nido has been promoted. “The beginning few months were a little rocky and you know [Joe Folgore’s] other business does incredibly well, and this is what he wanted. He was able to stay the course—if it’s not going to be organic and it’s not going to be great, then we just won’t do it.”
This sort of marketing or what some would call “lack of” may have actually worked to Il Nido’s benefit. Sometimes restaurant marketing can attract the wrong customer—the ones that are skeptical about price or ask why Il Nido doesn’t have “chicken parm” on the menu. For what the Marlboro restaurant is going for—this seems to be the best route.
Conversely, the fast-casual Lotsa Balls clocks in at a bit of a lower price-point and advertises sports and family fun in addition to great meatballs. Penedos’ project has a distinct theme that must make their traditional and digital marketing campaigns much easier.
“We got games: Jenga and Pacman machines. And we just did a ping pong tournament in the back room,” said Penedos. “Believe it or not, an 84-year-old woman won—she beat 15 legitimate athlete guys. Turns out, she was an Olympic ping pong player in the 80’s. Fun stuff [laughs]. She’s gonna come back and defend the title next time we do it. Otherwise, we have a TV commercial coming up, a radio spot on the Boomer and Gio show, and we’re doing ping pong tournaments, and Jenga tournaments.”
More importantly than each restaurant’s marketing techniques is the fact that they both have thought-out plans and are sticking to them. As a result, the future seems bright for both businesses.
“Good or bad for what we are, it’ll never be the cheapest restaurant, but when you have the best veal on the planet and it’s a 14oz chop—it just costs what it costs,” said Voller of Il Nido. “Luckily, we have a solid support of regulars, and I think more people are starting to notice.”
A distinct business and marketing plan breeds a staff that buys into the business’s goals and a customer base that reflects these decisions. What’s more, both businesses have been collecting feedback and working to further their respective concepts to be the best they can.
“We give feedback cards with the check and people are hilarious when they write us. But we gather feedback to build weekly specials: a soup special, a salad special, a meatball special, and usually a milkshake special. And right now, we’re on print one of the menu—we’re gonna come out with version two,” explained Penedos. “My partners and I come from an old school, mom-n-pop style restaurants—[Lotsa Balls] is more of a corporate-angled place. [In the future] we’re looking to franchise it and we’ve started the process.”
It’s no secret that it takes guts to start a business—period. However, it takes even more pride to stick to a plan that has no guarantee of working out. Il Nido and Lotsa Balls have done just that, and it seems they’ve got what it takes.