Following the Line of Success

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

“It’s amazing to see everyone band together and put the restaurants first. After all, we’re family.” —Chef Kevin Felice

When Anthony Scotto walks into one of his restaurants in New Jersey and sees young families gathered for dinner, his face lights up. In surreptitious quiet, he relishes the recipes being enjoyed—ones that were meticulously developed showcasing ingredients from the community. It all seems so familiar, a throwback to his early days in Italy. No wonder, really; passions for family, food, and restaurants are all around him, echoing the dreams of his father, his brother, and the entire Scotto family. It's all wrapped up in the simple laughter of guests enjoying a delicious meal in great company.

Truth be told, being known but not seen is more or less how the Scotto family—brothers Anthony and Biagio—run their restaurant group. It all started with Michele Scotto, who emigrated from Naples back in 1964. As his son, Anthony, paints it, running a single restaurant was a hefty challenge for the family of five.

“It took my parents and three siblings two weeks to arrive in New York. My father worked as a waiter on a cruise line for extra money, which is where he learned the service and quality aspects of the restaurant industry. When I first got involved in the family business some years later, it was still very small—just a couple of locations, because it was all we could handle.”

Clearly, however, challenge did not presage failure. Quite the contrary, the newly-minted Villa Enterprises expanded dramatically over the next 30 years to encompass over 300 locations of more than half a dozen fast-service restaurant concepts—stretching from pizza (the original Villa restaurant) to healthy eats (a premium salad eatery dubbed, fittingly, Green Leaf’s).

Anthony is quite candid when he describes the culinary landscape back when things got rolling in the ‘60s: “It was simple Americana then,” he says. “Ethnic foods were just being introduced, and restaurant competition was more often than not between mom-and-pop restaurants—not big chains.” Perhaps it’s a bit ironic that the Scotto family—once pioneers of a small pizza joint in Jersey—would soar to national culinary stardom. But there’s the rub: Michele always dreamed big, while never being willing to sacrifice character or quality.

“The vision was always to build national recognition,” Biagio says. “As we found success, our strength became our operation and infrastructure. That allowed us to acquire and establish additional brands and maximize real estate.”

It was just that kind of business savvy that led to the creation of 40North in 2007, the Scotto’s unique full-service restaurant group. What started with pizza grew to encompass fine-dining American fare and higher-end Italian dining harkening back to the family’s roots in Naples. The name says it all: a tip of the hat to the latitudinal position of both Naples and the group's headquarters in Morristown. 

These days, Chef Kevin Felice oversees the Scotto’s restaurants from the conceptual side—framing menus, planning seasonal changes, and being the face of 40North for community outreach events in New Jersey. For Felice, the secret to the family’s evident success is in meticulous planning—and maintenance.

“The key is having restaurants that don’t compete with each other. We have a small footprint now, so we have to make sure each brand is unique. We’re looking at upscale casual, and are appealing to a demographic in New Jersey that appreciates those kinds of restaurants.”

That upscale-casual angle has come to life in several forms throughout the 40North Group. The flagship of the group was the Black Horse Tavern, offering a curious weaving of classic and contemporary keyed in on farm-to-table freshness. Then there was that quaint piece of nostalgia, George & Martha's—quintessential Americana dished up with elevated comfort food and a design backdrop calling on our first president’s storied past. With these two came the third piece of a newly-minted trinity: The Office Beer Bar and Grill, sporting a gastropub ambience with food to match.

But while some concepts seem practically timeless, others need a bit of reinvention. Credit goes entirely to the Scotto family's ever-vigilant team for recognizing the need for growth and change, even when that means letting go of a long-sung standard. To that very end, they have opted to refigure some of the existing concepts and introduce new ones. The original Office will soon be rebranded as The Office Tavern Grill and will take on more of an international persona, treating guests to gastropub cuisine with global touches. An Italian concept is also slated to be born—Piattino, a chic pizza-and-pasta haven with bubbly Neapolitan pies, handmade pasta, and juicy grilled meats. And while each new generation of restaurants is an exciting adventure for the Scotto family, what has truly come to life is their entire restaurant group—a helping of not just restaurants, but sought-after destinations with an operational symbiosis that practically guarantees success.

With all of these concepts in full swing, their diversity begs the question: what inspires a new restaurant worthy of the Scotto family? For Anthony, it’s about the family’s constant experience with food—from their own forays in New Jersey, to return trips to native Naples, all the way to the eastern stretches of Asia.

“I often travel to other parts of the world, like Asia and the Middle East,” Anthony says. “It’s just such a wonderful learning experience, and it allows me to bring back the big ‘wows’ to incorporate into some of our new restaurants.”

And while dish and drink are central to the Scotto seal of success, there’s something else that makes 40North—and mother company Villa Enterprises—stand out from the hordes of restaurant groups glutting the East Coast.

Anthony puts it simply: “It’s the people. We have a lot of committed and passionate people in the company. It’s easy to say that, but you have to see them in action to really know what an impact they have. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to see our people grow with the company and all of our concepts.”

Felice echoes Anthony’s pride, recalling one chaotic day last year in the wake of an East Coast hurricane. “We lost power, and several of the restaurants were closed,” he remembers with a touch of melancholy. “But the restaurants that were open were busy. The staff at the closed concepts could have just headed home, but they didn’t. They continued to work at the open ones—helping out with prep work, cleaning, cooking. It’s amazing to see everyone band together like that. Sure, people had personal stuff to deal with, but they put the restaurants first. After all, we’re family.”

Much like the devotion of Michele Scotto some 50 years ago, it would seem that the heart and soul of 40North today is still its devoted, unwavering family. And it’s a unique bunch: restaurateurs, chefs, servers, bartenders. They’re all leading the way, and we can only watch with eager anticipation as they expand ever farther into culinary worlds yet unknown.