If the name Romeo DiBona sounds familiar, it should. The talented chef helmed Old Homestead Steak House at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa since Day 1 in 2013, helping it become THE most successful fine dining restaurant in Atlantic City.
That gig came after years of him showing off his talents for Caesars Atlantic City, particularly at Nero’s Italian Steakhouse — Nero’s Grille when he worked there.
But as much as DiBona enjoyed the casino restaurant world, he was itching to not only have his own joint, but to show off his Italian-American roots.
That happened last month when Romeo DiBona’s Italian American opened in Somers Point — right across the street from the ShopRite plaza — fulfilling a longtime dream that has him flashing that big smile more than ever.
“One day I was on my boat crabbing in Patcong Creek and I made sandwiches for my friends,” DiBona says. “I said, ‘Yeah, some day I would like to open my own sandwich joint.’ They came in when I opened the other day and told me that it was almost 10 years to the day when I said that. That’s kind of crazy to me.”
The South Philly native and Egg Harbor Township chef grew up in a family that loved food. And while it seems most Italian-American families always talk about how their mother or grandmother influenced their cooking, it was DiBona’s father who did the influencing … and not in the way you might think.
“Yeah, we had pasta every Sunday and pizza on Fridays, but we mostly ate steak,” says DiBona, who graduated cooking school in Philadelphia. “My father loved to grill. There would be 4 feet of snow, and we would be outside grilling. I think that’s what drew me to steakhouses … I like the fire and the flame and the sizzle.”
Before DiBona wowed people at Nero’s and Old Homestead, he worked at Philly mom-and-pop joints, the Copacabana on South Street and even Café Nola during a Cajun renaissance in Philly.
But after he was fired from a bar because the owner didn’t like the way he made his salads, he took a summer off at the shore and fell into being the broiler cook at The Oaks at the former Bally’s Grand in 1989. And he’s been a South Jersey boy ever since.
If you live anywhere near DiBona’s, consider yourself lucky. If you don’t, it’s worth the drive.
Part sub shop, part Italian restaurant, part market and deli, Romeo DiBona’s Italian American can do everything from make fresh pasta and subs for you to eat or take out, offer you prepared heat-and-eat meals, or just look in the case and pick fresh salads, imported cheeses and other Italian staples to make a more authentic meal yourself at home.
At DiBona’s, subs are king and called “sangweeches,” as DiBona has fun with his Italian-American heritage. A blackboard outside the restaurant asked customers “to make sangweeches great again,” with a line drawing of President Trump.
But those “sangweeches” are what’s going to create the buzz around Romeo DiBona’s Italian American. Of course, they have to have humorous names to match their creativity: The Joey Turtles ($10.50) features “gabagool” — a cross between prosciutto and sausage — mortadella, fresh “mutz” or mozzarella, arugula and sun-dried tomato pesto; the Krazy Aunt Katie ($9.50) pairs Italian tuna in olive oil with bruschetta, provolone and long hots; the Tommy The Fed ($9.50) features DiBona’s slow-roasted pork with broccoli rabe, shaved Auricchio cheese and long hots; and the Vinny Wheels ($12.50) is a simply amazing cheesesteak with “double meat, double cheese” and some of the most tender, thinly sliced ribeye meat you will ever have.
“No one has sandwiches like we do down here,” DiBona says. “Everything I use is imported, from the cheeses to the meats. I really get my influence from when I used to go to New York for Old Homestead, and there would be places like this everywhere … and Bagliani’s in Hammonton. The imported meats and cheeses just have a different taste and are different quality. I don’t think we have anything you will find at ShopRite. We make our own mozzarella. The Auricchio still has the tags from Italy on it. And this week we are getting some amazing prosciutto from Tuscany that rivals anything out there.”
No Italian deli would be worth its salt without some great meatballs, and DiBona delivers with the Big John ($9.50), DiBona’s pan-fried meatballs that feature a blend of pork, beef and veal with his famous sauce, ricotta and fresh mutz.
“We pan fry them up and hit it with some red wine and put it in a sauce that is really basic — tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic and basil — but delicious.”
Of course, there are plenty of chicken cutlet options that are thinly pounded, breaded and fried to perfection. Try the Crazy Petey ($11.50) with roasted peppers, shaved Auricchio, artichoke bruchestta and balsamic; or The Carbone ($11.50) with fresh mutz, pesto and red pepper couli.
“They are 10-ounce cutlets pounded thin, breaded and spiced up and fried up,” he says.
The bread is a major factor in the equation, and DiBona’s does it right, getting its seeded, crusty roll used for most of the sandwiches from Sarcone’s in South Philly. And the cheesesteak roll is from Carangi on Oregon Avenue in Philly.
“The Sarcone’s was too crusty for the cheesesteak,” DiBona says. “One day my bread guy brought in the wrong bread, and I tried it, and it was Carangi’s. And it was just perfect for the cheesesteak. You need a bread to soak up all that cheesesteak goodness.”
A bunch of salads include Johnny Bears ($13) with iceberg lettuce, radicchio, tomato, pancetta, gorgonzola and white balsamic vinaigrette and the Nicks ($10) with Romaine, egg yolk, parmesan dressing and white anchovies.
And DiBona shows his skills with some nice, simple pastas, including linguine and tomato basil ($13), fettuccine with a spicy cheese sauce ($15), Bucatini Amatriciana ($15) with chili, onion, tomato, guanciale (Italian cured meat), garlic and Pecorino, and Spaghetti Limone ($14) with olive oil, lemon, black pepper, basil and parm.
“The Amatriciana is made the right way with guanciale — which is the cured beef jowl — instead of pancetta and bacon, which everyone else uses,” DiBona says. “When you take that guanciale and put it in with the onion and that fat just melts in there … that’s where the flavor come from.”
If you’re in a hurry, check out the heat-and-eat items to take home like eggplant parm ($13), chicken parm ($15), crab cakes with apple slaw ($20) and eggplant Florentine ($14).
And the case is loaded with homemade items such as house-made pickles, roasted peppers, roasted potatoes, Sicilian olive salad, potato salad, tomatoes and mozzarella and even some desserts including Key lime pie and Italian rum cake.
“We are going to keep adding things like a shrimp and broccoli rabe in a vodka sauce with fettuccine soon, and eventually we will get into some seafood pastas you can take home and homemade soups for the fall and winter. We even want to play around with some American things like grilled cheeses.”
Now that DiBona no longer works for “the man,” he’s enjoying the freedom his own restaurant gives him to be even more creative.
“It has been great,” he says. “People seem to come here and say that we really needed something like this. So this will be my baby now for a while, and then we will see what else pops up to do.”