Cotardo’s: Celebrating 30 Years Serving South Jersey

by Tara Nurin, Copywriter, Taste of South Jersey June 2011

“My food hasn’t changed in 30 years!” proclaims Aldo Cotardo, owner of Cotardo’s Ristorante Italiano in Clementon.

This announcement would never cross the lips of a restaurateur who chases the ever-roaming spotlight of buzzwords like “hip,” “novel,” or “up-to-the-minute.”

Monica and Aldo Cotardo in the dining room
at Cotardo’s Ristorante Italiano

But Cotardo is the antithesis of such a restaurateur. Cotardo, rather, derives his satisfaction from serving a hearty Sunday dinner to his original patrons and three generations of their descendants or from fielding compliments from former customers — perhaps visiting after an out-of-state move — who gush that his food remains as consistently delicious as ever. No, Cotardo isn’t after reviews that label him “trendy” or “new age.” For Cotardo, cooking with the simple recipes and techniques he’s used since his 1982 opening is a fact to advertise with pride.

“We cook food like Grandma used to make, ” he says. “We don’t use microwaves, we don’t use steamers, we don’t use fancy equipment to cook faster and easier. We use plain old fashioned stoves.”

The food that comes off those stoves is similarly unfussy, in a way that’s indicative of the cuisine Cotardo’s parents cooked for him as a child in Puglia, Southern Italy. While Cotardo creates his specific recipes himself, they all incorporate the straightforward marinara and relatively unadorned pasta, chicken, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, clams and mussels of his homeland. Though he lovingly calls it “peasant food, ” the chef/owner ensures its quality by insisting that it be prepared his way.

“I never hired a chef in the 30 years of doing business, and trained all of my cooks, ” says the entrepreneur who had almost no culinary training or restaurant experience before opening his eponymous eatery. “They never cooked anywhere else before working for me, never, never, never.”

Judging from their longevity, these cooks, as well as other employees, seem to appreciate his tutelage. Most of his cooks stay with him longer than ten years; his servers generally work at the restaurant through college; and his general manager, Frank Bersani, started as a 15-year-old dishwasher when Cotardo first opened his doors.

By fostering this cohesive atmosphere amongst his staff, Cotardo further deepens the meaning of a “family restaurant.” He runs the establishment with his wife, Monica, who brought him home to New Jersey in 1979 after their meeting in Martinique. They raised their son and daughter in the restaurant, resting their cradles on the counter when they were babies and encouraging them to interact with their loyal patrons once they grew older.

And they welcome their customers like family, welcoming many of them several times a week and catering their most meaningful family moments, from rehearsal dinners to baptism brunches to funerals, in his private dining room.

The financial reward for his devotion is the steady stream of customers who have kept up their patronage despite the recession. The emotional reward is impossible to describe.

“It’s amazing to see what happens over a thirty-year period,” he marvels.

Despite turning 58, Cotardo plans no changes for the foreseeable future to his schedule or his restaurant. Typical.