Part 2 of 3-Part Article Series
BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - TAPinto continues our series with Sal Passalacqua in celebration of 40 years at Dimaios. The series started with Sal's Sicilian roots and coming to America [Carini Roots to Dimaios] to help with the family pizzeria business before he opened his own restaurant in Berkeley Heights.
Sal told TAPinto, "I made it in the beginning through a little bit of luck."
We continue our series with Part 2: "Pizza Delivery" years.
Sal made it through the energy crisis years with a little bit of luck. His staff was down to one waitress. His mother, Ilda, came to cook while Sal made the pizzas. He ran a "lean and mean" operation.
Interest rates were through the roof. "I needed a mixer," he said. He was sold a mixer for $9,000 at 23 percent interest. His mortgage in 1981 was at 18.5 percent interest. "Fortunately, things turned around. By 1984, we started to get busier and busier," he said. He hired wait staff and, soon, seven waitresses took care of the customers and he hired three to answer the phone.
His mother started to cut back her time and Sal took charge of the kitchen. Once he paid off his debt, he started to remodel the restaurant and changed the menu.
In 1993, Sal decided to give pizza delivery a try. He knew he couldn't deliver out of Dimaios because once you deliver, you couldn't turn back. He created a company named Espresso Pizza, completely separate from Dimaios, and opened up a pizza shop at the Mondelli Shopping Center -- just down Springfield Avenue. "I had cars with checkered sides with the Espresso Pizza logo." He opened a second location in New Providence. "I did that for about five years. -- It was killing me, literally," said Sal. "My kids were little, I was never home." At the time, he had 65 people working for him. "I was thirty something. I was really struggling [internally].”
A call from the police changed everything. The officer told him one of his drivers hit a pedestrian and, even though it wasn't his driver's fault, the event changed Sal's "whole perspective" on his business. "For a long time I was sitting here working and all these things going on. I had no control of my life," he said.
Sal said he did some soul searching in 1996. "My kids don't see me, my wife doesn't see me. I am going to come here and work every day." At the time, his kids were 10, 9 and 6. That’s when he realized he wanted to take time off and watch them grow up.
He closed the New Providence store when the lease was up, and sold the Berkeley Heights Espresso Pizza store to family. They eventually moved the store across the street. When they moved, they left everything in place, and Delicious Heights opened its first shop. Today, Delicious Heights operates three restaurants [Berkeley Heights, Basking Ridge and Bedminster] and two catering facilities.
Now, concentrating on Dimaios, both Sal and Tami worked lunch. Tami would drive the kids home after school and the grandparents would watch the kids while Tami would come back to help at the restaurant.
Pizza Hut and Boston Market had opened downtown and took some business away. "I had to make a decision," said Sal. "Delivery wasn't for me. I made a decision that I needed to be different. I couldn't be just another pizzeria or another Italian restaurant." He decided to go back to culinary school. "I'd get up at 5:30 a.m. and drive to New York City. Class was from 6:50 a.m. and got out at 3 p.m. and I would come back and work until midnight."
"I was only able to go to cooking school, have a family and a restaurant because of my wife Tami, who is incredibly supportive, always," said Sal.
After he finished the program, he was required to complete 360 internship hours. "I wasn't going to do it in a restaurant," he said. "I can’t do it. It would be a nightmare," he said. Someone that comes into Dimaios told him about James Beard, and how Food Network, a start-up at the time, was filming Cooking Live shows with chefs like Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and Sara Moulten.
Sal had an interview with the Executive Chef at Food Network for an unpaid internship. He was offered an internship working for the Sara Moulten Cooking Live show. Moulten got her start working with Julia Child.
This 24 hour a week, 15 week internship launched Sal's Food Network career.
Next, Part 3 of 3 in the series: Food Network, Emeril to his current culinary inspirations.
Dimaios is located at 468 Springfield Avenue in Berkeley Heights. Reservations call 908.464.8585. Dimaios menu combines the traditions of Sal's Sicilian heritage along with inspirations from his worldly culinary adventures with an emphasis on the highest quality ingredients, locally sourced, at the peak of freshness.