New Jersey Food Journal

Monday, June 1, 2015

Catherine Lombardi's Pioneers

Jamon Iberico de Bellota (Photo credits: H.C.)
By Allyson Ricarte

As the glistening jamon iberico de bellota melted on the ordinary wooden cutting board, restaurateur Francis Schott resisted from dangling a thin slice into his mouth. Instead, he reeled through the oak forests of northern Spain and their tarrying pata negra pigs feasting on acorns. Catherine Lombardi’s is nothing without its stories.

“The difference between good and great is authenticity and also its complexity,” Schott said. “You’re going to taste this for a long time,” restaurateur Mark Pascal said.

Pascal shares the joys of Italian-American home cooked dinners of his grandmother, after whom the restaurant is named. The effervescent business partners bring to the dining table angelically soft mozzarella oozing after its fresh massage in salt water. They offer the flirtatious spark of orange garnish in their Brooklyn cocktail. Their ice balls seem magical. They’ve captured New Brunswick’s attention day and night.

However, chain restaurants are pushing independent owners out of the spectrum, Pascal said. “Because the thing about being an independent owner is that, (when) the Bennigan’s closed, the stock holders lose value on their stocks,” Schott said. “When some of these independent restaurants close, people’s lives are turned upside down.”

In addition, the decline in reflective food journalism doesn’t help, Schott said. Lists, such as the top 10 restaurants in New Brunswick, place emphasis on competition within restaurant services and demonstrate lazy journalism, Schott said. “I don’t view food as a contest,” Schott said.

Catherine Lombardi’s and co-owned restaurant Stage Left faced a similar conflict during the 2008 economic crisis that shook neighboring restaurants to discount overdrive. For Pascal and Schott, quality experience was without a doubt their best survival technique. “As far as plate went and service went, those weren’t compromises we weren’t willing to make,” Pascal said. “(Customers) didn’t have the money to do it (fine dining) for a while, but they didn’t forget that they enjoyed some of those finer things in life.”

Finer wasn’t the only term that resonated in their elegant dining room, but also simple. Call them pioneers, Pascal and Schott were determined to bring fresh ingredients to the table not because it was fundamentally a cool story, Pascal said. “We knew our guests well enough to say OK, do you trust me?” Schott said. “That was the key; we were the conduit between the producer that makes the cool thing and the people in the community so that’s how we view ourselves.”

Pascal and Schott also love to translate their food interests in their food talk show, The Restaurant Guys on 1450 WCTC. The program first aired in 2005 for nine years before its hiatus. They intend to return in the near future, Pascal said. These brotherly partners couldn’t wish any more from their jobs. “I chose this because I love all of the parts of this,” Pascal said. “I love the people parts of this. I love the food parts of this. I love the hospitality parts of this.”

Allyson Ricarte is a student at Rutgers University, studying journalism and media studies, art history, and digital communication. She hopes to work in Broadway production.