NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The vineyard owner on the screen had obviously been drinking his own stock and could no longer converse in his native Italian nor his limited English, but was fluent in the international language of drunk.

His inarticulate antics provided hours of laughs for the customers who had tuned in from the comfort and safety of their homes. They were having such a fun time talking about the unintentionally comedic performance, not to mention the food and drink, that they stayed on even after the hosts signed off.

You never know what might happen during one of the Zoom wine dinners that Mark Pascal and Francis Schott have been hosting since March. The only thing the owners of Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi can guarantee is that their bi-weekly dinners will provide great food, wine and company.

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“It has been a hit with our customers,” Pascal said. “There are two parts that I love about the Zoom wine dinners. One, there’s no person who’s only done one so far. So, there’s nobody who said I want to do one and never did another. That’s something I’m super proud of. The other is, generally we start at 7 or 7:30 and the winemaker leaves after an hour and a half or two hours, while we’re finishing desert. Almost every call goes on for another hour and half with no one leaving the chat.”

The virtual wine dinners have helped Pascal and Schott keep connected with their customers, even as their restaurants maintain limited seating as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers. As it turns out, it’s also a way for their customers to connect with each other, too.

The chefs at Catherine Lombardi (top floor) or Stage Left (bottom) prepare a four-course meal designed to be enjoyed with limited preparation. For instance, the vacuum-sealed main courses such as lamb shank or short ribs sent to the participants are ready to be eaten after spending a few minutes in boiling water.

The idea is for participants to spend less time preparing the food and more time in front of their screen, engaged with the vineyard owners or winemakers who join in to discuss merlots, malbecs, malagousias or other grapes of rapt.

“Every wine dinner has its own dynamic,” Schott said. “When Mark came up with the idea, I wasn’t sure how it would work logistically, but it’s been a hit. Our customers have enjoyed everything: the food, the wine, the social interaction during a time when a pandemic has limited our gatherings.”

Long before Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi became cornerstones of the downtown New Brunswick revitalization, Schott and Pascal were two guys living in the River Dorms over at Rutgers.

Schott would turn up after his night shift at a supermarket in Hillsborough with a bag of bread and cheese, the kinds they sell to employees at a discount because they’re on the cusp of being outdated. He ended up sharing it with Pascal, who always had cold Molsons on hand.

After graduation, Schott went to grad school and Pascal became an actuary for Blue Cross Blue Shield. After nine days, Pascal left and began working the front end at the Frog and the Peach. Schott soon joined him.

The branched out in 1992 and opened Stage Left, which has evolved into a sophisticated steakhouse with creative contemporary cuisine.

In 2005, they renovated the space upstairs and opened Catherine Lombardi. The home-style Italian restaurant is not only named after Pascal’s grandmother but features her old-world recipes. In fact, he said that sometimes when he comes up the steps and catches the aroma of her sauce cooking in the kitchen, he is transported back to her home in Brooklyn.

Over the years, these restaurants have become staples of the downtown dining experience and Schott and Pascal have also become ingrained with the city. They not only hatched the idea of the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration that typically draws 5,000 people up and down George Street, but they have gotten sponsors to foot the bill.

Pascal, Schott and silent partner Lou Riveiro are making the most of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pascal was set back after contracting COVID-19 in March. Still, they have reopened the wine shop for customers looking for vino or other fine liquors. They have also added a new zebra wood bar upstairs. 

During January, sit-down dining will be available on Fridays and Saturdays upstairs. Limited indoor seating will return in February for Stage Left on a Thursday through Sunday schedule, while Catherine Lombardi will be open seven days.

For more information on the Zoom wine dinners, visit Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left on line.