For veteran restaurateurs and the team behind Sapore, Alban Mertkola and Tony Hoda, there is not much that can surprise them except those very rare instances when everything goes really ... right. As it did with the duos newest eatery, Aroma, which opened Memorial Weekend in the Ventnor location that previously housed Sage.
“I’ve been in this business for 17 years and the biggest surprise I’ve ever had is that we were able to get this restaurant together in two weeks. I don’t know if it was skill or luck,” says Mertkola, co-owner. Or, he adds, more likely a combination.
When Sage and Lisa’s closed, a vibrant corner of Ventnor went dark. “We love seeing this part of Ventnor booming again and we really want to thank Ventnor, the fire and building departments, everyone was so helpful and really wanted to see this restaurant open,” Mertkola says.
When Mertkola and Hoda walked into the shell of what would become Aroma, they turned around and walked back out. “We walked away, we didn’t like it,” Mertkola says. “But this is the business we’re in, we like the headaches, this is what we love to do,” adds Hoda, co-owner and executive chef.
Working 16 hour days, they were able to transform a shuttered stall into a flourishing fine dining eatery. “We haven’t had a day off in at least a month. Today all of our friends are at the beach, and we are here, but that’s OK. This is what we love, this is where our passion is,” Hoda says.
With linen-covered tables, spacious seating and art-filled walls, Aroma exudes fine dining. “We did it all ourselves,” explains Mertkola. “We even created some of the art on the walls,” adds Hoda pointing out the pieces the duo made.
While the restaurant’s interior is beautiful, their outdoor seating is a big draw. Lots of lush potted plants dot a sidewalk brimming with tables. “We wanted it to feel like you’re in nature without leaving the city,” Hoda says.
Elegant settings give way to quality dishes with a Northern Italian influence. “Everything we use is top-quality. Our pasta is homemade, our veal is milk-fed, our octopus is from Spain, our branzino is from Greece, our salmon is Scottish, our scallops are hand-picked, our chicken is free-range,” Hoda says.
These specially sourced ingredients find their way to the table in dishes such as the grilled octopus appetizer ($16), served with broccoli rabe, Roma tomatoes and saffron in a lemon, garlic sauce. The branzino ($34) is served as a whole fish with roasted asparagus, capers and a lemon butter sauce. Their aroma di mare (MP) includes scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, langostines, salmon and crostini served in a pomodora sauce. Their veal chop ($34) is a 14-ounce center cut veal chop served with broccoli rabe, mashed potatoes, mushrooms and a marsala demi-glace.
“We are big on presentation and consistency. I tell my chef, the food has to be the best, it has to be the same every time you serve it, regardless of whether you’ve made two or 200. With fine dining each bite has to have that ‘wow’ factor,” Hoda says.
In addition, because the kitchen is a scratch kitchen, they are able to cater to dietary restrictions and preferences. “We can make almost anything gluten-free, besides specific pastas,” Hoda says.
As one of the new eateries on the block, customers have been eager to try Aroma. “We’ve been very busy, but everyone wants to eat at the same time,” says Hoda of the preferred 7 o’clock dining hour. That’s why they’ve created an early bird special. For $30 per person, you can order any appetizer or salad and any entrée from the menu between 4 and 5:30 p.m. Nothing is off limit, you could order the cheese and meat plate ($18) and the braised beef short rib ($34).
“If you come a little earlier, you can really enjoy the food,” Hoda says.