Food & Drink

Chef Robert Irvine of 'Restaurant Impossible' Transforms W. Orange Eatery

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Back row, from left: WOBOE President Laura Lab, Patty Spango, Councilman Jerry Guarino and wife Robin. Front: BOE member Ron Charles wife Idalina Charles,  Credits: provided by Ron Charles
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Drinks at Starlite Credits: Ron Charles
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Guests Credits: Ron Charles
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Guests Credits: Ron Charles
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Guests Credits: Ron Charles
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Dessert Credits: Ron Charles
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Dinner Credits: Ron Charles
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Dinner Credits: Ron Charles
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Guests Credits: Ron Charles
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WEST ORANGE, NJ – The premier of the new season of Restaurant: Impossible launched on March 9, with the transformation of West Orange’s own Starlite Restaurant and Pizza. Chef Robert Irvine and his TV and design crews ambushed the restaurant in January with the goal of turning it around in a day’s time and giving it a new lease on life.

A packed house at the restaurant viewed it live with owner Patty Spango, her family and staff. An update at the end of the show indicated that after two months, sales are up 50 percent.

Starlite opened in 1961, and Patty began working there at 13 as a member of the wait staff. In 1989, she bought the restaurant and began putting her “heart and soul” as well as $1 million into it. Once a landmark, the business stopped turning a profit in 2008.

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Patty, whose sons Jim and Ralph work with her at Starlite, said over the years, there were times when she had to go into her own pocket to pay her staff.

Unbeknownst to Patty, Jim created a video asking for help that was submitted to Irvine.

When Irvine arrived at Starlite on Jan. 6, 2016, using a ruse of a gas leak as a way to get Patty to Starlite early in the morning, he was surprised at what he saw.

The show addressed years of neglect that Patty admitted happened as a result of her not managing the staff efficiently.

A professional cleaning crew of eight people was called in to clean the kitchen, with the effort taking 12 hours overnight. However, this effort paid off the next day when the health department made a surprise visit to inspect the kitchen, which passed inspection.

Unfortunately, the hiring of the cleaning crew and the purchase of two new refrigerators seriously cut into the show’s overall budget of $10,000, which included the redecorating budget.

On Jan. 7, Irvine’s demolition crew, which included members of the community invited via social media, got to work. Some demolished, while others moved furniture and scrubbed the restaurant from top to bottom.

The place was then painted a crisp white to give it a more airy feel. Black and white designs were used as the new theme that was carried over to the 75 reupholstered chairs. Frosted window panels lined in black were placed over the windows. They serve to allow light in and to act as wall decorations, rather than costly art work.

In addition, a buffet was built for storage and decoration and the bar was updated.

With Patty working every night except Tuesdays, doing almost everything but cooking, Irvine put out a call on social media for servers and chefs. He said Patty needed more staff members.

At the same time, the Starlite chef of 30 years, who Patty admitted she had trouble managing, quit.

The next day, five chef applicants: Paul Resko, Giulo Luca, Pat Turano, Tom Schuckman and Martin Rangel, were invited for interviews, which took place at the Essex House in West Orange. They were each tasked with creating a signature dish in 20 minutes using anything they found in the kitchen. They were told that they would be narrowed down to three, who would work at the grand re-opening, and then Patty would choose a new chef. She ultimately chose Turano.

During the show, Patty said that she loved the restaurant business, had been at a point where she was no longer loving it, and that Irvine was helping her to feel invigorated again.

When Patty Jim and Ralph arrived for the big reveal on Jan. 7, their emotion was palpable, and Patty and Ralph were brought to tears.

Patty looked around in awe and said the place was “absolutely gorgeous,” and “magnificent,” adding “oh my God this is amazing,” and “this is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

She told Irvine, “You changed my life.” She also shared that while she had been in the business for 52 years, she had learned more in the 24 hours she spent with Irvine.

Then it was time for the big reveal, where Patty excitedly opened the doors to the members of the community waiting to be the first ones inside to see the new and improved restaurant.

Guests included West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, Councilwoman and President of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce Susan McCartney and her husband Joe, Mark and Julie Orenstein and TAP into West Orange’s own Joe Ricci and his husband Marco, just to name a few.

Ricci said that the meatballs were “close” to the kind his mom made.

Parisi said, “As the Mayor of West Orange, I am thrilled to see a place like Starlite have an opportunity to start over again. To see a new life with Patty and the Spango family is an exciting opportunity for them and a great day for the community.”

Patty said, “I am going to make sure there is a line outside of Starlite waiting to get into Starlite. I know I can make this succeed.”

A waiter working at the restaurant on Wednesday said that in its heyday there was always a line around the block waiting to get into Starlite. He added he was hoping that now with the help of Irvine and the show, the new 17-item menu, which was scaled down from over 90 items, a new chef and look and feel, that Starlite would once again become an icon.

According to Livingston resident Evelyn Wade, who ate at Starlite on Wednesday, the crowd watching the show live with the Spangos was lively and excited. Wade said it was a supportive environment with people cheering during the reveal of the newly reconfigured and decorated restaurant on TV.

She added that there was a “real sense of community” at the event, with people getting up to chat with each other all night, and said she felt it was a very good experience and that the food was delicious.

Wade and her friend, Billie Challeff, also of Livingston, each got the same meal, which included a “yummy” green salad with craisins, walnuts and goat cheese, the meatball appetizer and baked eggplant.  Wade said that throughout the evening, Patty appeared upbeat and seemed to feel touched by the supportive people around her. She also said Patty looked satisfied.

“The staff seemed very much like a family,” said Wade.

Chaleff, who said she has being going to Starlite since she was little with her family, was impressed with the look of the restaurant.

“The place looks beautiful and homey, “she said, and added, “I love the colors used and would use them in my own home.”

West Orange Councilman Jerry Guarino, who also attended the airing of the show at Starlite said, “Watching the show at Starlite was a lot of fun, especially with Patty’s family there. The food was great.”

Another diner, West Orange Board of Education member Ronald Charles said, “‎The transformation is incredible. The design crew and contractors did a wonderful job. Hopefully, this will be the rebirth of a better Starlite for the Spango family. I wish them good luck.”

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