Sunday, February 14, 2010

From the humble pizza to gourmet cooking

When does a pizza restaurant not only have gourmet pizzas with toppings such as clams and shrimp, but also have menu items such as Tonna Befanna (grilled ahi tuna served with a warm pancetta-infused cannellini bean salad topped with wilted arugula) or Tagliatella Pescatore (fettucini tossed with an assortment of clams, shrimp, scallops and calamari in an herb-infused light tomato sauce)?

The answer: When it's Dante's Ristorante, which is a quant little Italian restaurant in Mendham with both a sit-down option complemented by dinner seating areas with candlelight (perfect for dates) and a stellar takeout menu, offering the best of both worlds.

"We have sort of a gourmet takeout," says manager John Triana, "You can go from basic stuff like subs or pastas or pizza pies to items including rack of lamb and lobster. We have something for everyone here."

Dante's, which has been around since 1991 and is named after the son of owner Lisa Durso, is the kind of restaurant that people keep coming back to for many reasons — not just for the stellar food.

"We treat everyone like family here," Durso says of the Zagat-rated restaurant, "That's what's important."

She also attributes most of her business to the fact that the menu has stayed fairly consistent since the restaurant opened.

"Whatever we put out, I make sure that it's good, warm and comfy," Durso says. "I think part of our success is that the service that we give here is amazing."

Not only is the service amazing, but the food is too. Customers have long-time chef Jairo Rojas, who has been with Dante's since the beginning, to thank for that.

"My chef will do anything that anybody wants," Durso says about deviating from the menu if customers request something different, "If we have the ingredients, we'll make it, it doesn't matter what it is. And we've gotten some strange requests before."

Dante's also is very involved with the community, giving back to it whenever possible.

"We have a program where we help the high school kids," Triana says, "I hire like 15 kids a year. I keep rotating them because they go to college. And it goes from junior, sophomores and seniors, and they take care of the takeout. They take the orders and learn the menu.

"And we have donations for all the kids on the lacrosse team at Mendham High School. We help during March, and we're going to donate 10 percent of every Monday's sales to the lacrosse team. We do the fencing team, too. We help out a lot of different teams."

The folks at Dante's also help out the frequent customers who return to the restaurant, offering them great deals to make sure that they keep coming back for more.

"Sometimes, we'll do promotions," says Triana. "This February, we're going to have something called 'Avoid the Crowd,' because you know how Valentine's Day is a crazy event."

This "Avoid the Crowd" event is exactly what it sounds like. People will receive e-mails from Triana about when to come in, and they'll do just that — avoid the crowd.

Most restaurants are so crowded on Valentine's Day that service is not good, Triana says, adding that "our service is going to be great" because of the program.

"Avoid the crowd" allows customers to celebrate Valentine's day Monday through Thursday, he explained, adding that, "We tell you to come to Dante's and we'll give you a 20 percent discount, and we can do some nice things like giving you chocolate, and we're going to give you flowers."

If you think it sounds like Dante's is looking to please the customer, then you're right.

"People like Italian food, and it's very popular," Triana says, "That's why the owner got into it."

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