(2009) Ask Salvatore "Sal" Imperiale why Manalapan-based Mezza Luna Restaurant and Pizzeria is so successful and he won't tell you it's his birthright - Sal was born in Napoli, Italy where he was raised on real Italian fare and started working in restaurants when he was twelve years old.
He also won't tell you it's his extensive experience in running pizzerias - in the past 30 years, he's owned 17 restaurants here in the U.S; he bought his first at age 18.
Inspired, Sal will tell you that Mezza Luna's resounding success is based on five elements which are no secret to his many satisfied customers: consistency, reasonable prices, generous portions, cleanliness, and service. "If you can make all those things work," Sal says "You can make money."
-From Napoli to Manalapan-
Sal was born in Italy in 1960. At twelve years old, he took his first job, leaving school to work as a dishwasher in an upscale restaurant using his hard-earned wages to help support his family. He worked at the restaurant for three years, which gave him an ideal view into how the restaurant business worked and how to prepare first-rate food for customers.
When Sal turned 15, he got a permit to work in the kitchen of a cruise ship as a cook helper, a job that further enhanced his understanding of food service operations. He worked on the ship for two years, then decided it was time to move to America, where some of his family has already made their home. His first U.S. destination was Matawan, New Jersey.
In Matawan, Sal again took a job as a cook helper, working for a man who owned four restaurants. Taking notice of Sal's dedication and his unwavering determination to succeed, the boss sent Sal to take over one of his restaurants on Long Beach Island, which was flatering, "He was treating me like a son," says Sal, "because I was such a good worker." Sal bought the pizzeria with no money down, turned it around, and continued to look for more opportunities.
He went on to buy another restaurant in Jackson, a third in Marlboro, and one in Bricktown. "I was always trying to move up one way or another," he says. "Every time I go to a place, the business always increases. I never went out of business, I never went bankrupt. "He sold the Marlboro location and added another in Brick. He then sold three restaurants to a family with six brothers in a single shot and moved west, to the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois.
-To the Midwest and Back Again-
The restaurant business was different in the Midwest. While he was there, Sal owned four pizza franchises operating out of malls in the Chicago suburbs, but he wasn't happy. "The clientele was not like here," Sal says, "They were way behind. They didn't know about food." He lasted there for about three years, then sold all four restaurant and moved back east, buying another pizzeria in the Staten Island Mall. By the late 1990s, Sal had sold the Staten Island location and bought a bar/restaurant/pizza place in Sayreville, a pizzeria in East Brunswick, and another in Marlboro. He had partnerships in several others. All were successful enterprises, and when he got good offers, he sold them.
Eventually, he found a pizza restaurant in the Towne Point Center in Manalapan that was struggling, but had potential. Sensing a new opportunity, Sal plunged in. He called his new establishment Mezza Luna Family Restaurant and Pizzeria, and 14 years later, it is one of Manalapan's most popular businesses.
-A Menu for Success-
Sal's recipe for building a successful restaurant is based on providing customers with what they really want. "It's what you want to eat, not what I want to sell," he says. "Owning a restaurant is not just being a big shot - it's my job, it's my life, it's everything. I am always looking toward what people want, what they are eating. I was the first pizza restaurant with a selection of salads, wraps, seafood, and healthy dinners. Our menu has over 150 items; we do daily specials, an early bird menu for seniors, and we specialize in healthy choices." If you don't see what you want on the Mezza Luna menu (which seems unlikely), you can ask them to make you something special - if they can do it, they will.
Mezza Luna was the first restaurant in the area to offer salad pizza, one of its most popular - and unique offerings. "Everyone comes here for that," says Sal. "Others can imitate it, but they can't duplicate it."
"If you're going to be in a place, you've got to improve," he adds. As an example, he mentions a recent change he made to his pricing in response to the economic woes that many of his customers are suffering from. "In January 2009. when things were real bad with the economy, I decided to sell my pizzas for $7.99 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I'm doing this to make their lives easier, and to bring in new customers. Even though the economy is bad, we're doing better than ever."
Generous portions of consistently good quality, delicious fare keeps customers coming back, and Sal likes to give them more than they asked for. A salad comes with each entree, as well as a choice of whole wheat or regular pasta, mashed potatoes or a vegetable. Portions are so big, Sal says, "You can eat now, and can take the rest home and eat tomorrow too." You can also get your pizza or meal delivered right to your door.
Sal's two chefs, Bartolo and Franky, have been with Mezza Luna since it first opened, which helps ensure that people continue to get the good food they've come to expect. In total, he employs 28 people - 16 are full time. "They all work Saturdays," he says. Among his part time employees are his three children, all in their 20's who work at the restaurant in their spare time - two are currently enrolled at Monmouth University, the eldest is a Monmouth University graduate.
One of the things that Sal likes most about owning a restaurant in this area is the customers, who he says are very sophisticated. "Around here, people know what they want. It's a challenge for me to please them, and I like a challenge," he says. Part of Mezza Luna's business comes from catering and parties, and Sal loves helping customers plan their events. "I like to answer their questions and guide them to the right choices. It's all about taking care of the customers."
As far as building a thriving business, Sal must be on to something. "I don't believe in the right time, the right place, or luck." Sal says, "It's all about consistency, reasonable prices, generous portions, cleanliness, and service." With so many successes to his credit, we're guessing he's probably right.
(2013) Throughout the decades of success, Sal was always accompanied by his children, who traveled far and wide following their father's career. With all three children currently finished with college, Anthony, Paul and Susan began career paths of their own. With Susan currently enjoying a fulfilling career in cosmetics, Anthony and Paul have found themselves in a very familiar place.
Growing up in a household where their father was always working and always fighting for a better life for his family, Sal's children were constantly in the restaurant trying to help their father. Even at a very young age, they pretty much did it all in the restaurant, from bus boy, to dishwasher, to pizza man, to waiter. Sal had always taken pride in his two boys and always counted on them when he needed extra help, because no matter what age they were, they were always top employees. When other children were going out on the weekends and after school, Anthony and Paul were in the restaurant doing all they could to help their father. "It was always their choice to come to the restaurant with me." says Sal. "They used to ask me every day to come help and they actually enjoyed it when other kids only wanted to play." Whether they were making pizza boxes or washing dishes, Sal's two boys always wanted to be part of the action.
Growing up in the restaurant business always gave Sal's children an edge over the competition because of the hard work and knowledge they have acquired over the years. These skills helped Anthony and Paul succeed in their own careers following college, even though their paths were very different. Anthony went on to pursue a career in Software Engineering, which he eventually acquired 4 college degrees in. Seven years of college resulted in a Master's Degree in Software Engineering, A Bachelor's Degree in Software Engineering, a Minor's Degree in Computer Science and A Minor's Degree in Mathematics. Along with his strong drive and determination, Anthony acquired a full-time job with the Department of Defense, developing software and hardware for projects such as generators, M1 Abrams Tanks and Apache Helicopters. Anthony remained a Software Engineer and Architect for the Department of Defense for 5 years, while working part-time at the restaurant. Although Anthony was moving up quickly in the field, he always felt that something was missing. With Sal consistently improving Mezza Luna, he knew that if he wanted to grow any more, he would need reliable help.
After working with the Department of Defense for 5 years, Anthony talked to his father and they both agreed that he would leave his current position to be a full-time employee and help run the restaurant. After more than a year of running Mezza Luna with his father, Anthony knew that he was meant to be in the restaurant and the numbers reflected that. Sal finally got the final boost of help he needed to maintain his number one position in the area; and Mezza Luna is doing better than ever while consistently growing.
Following college, Paul decided that he would pursue a career in, criminal law and justice by becoming a Seaside Heights Class I Officer. His motivation allowed him to be selected in the top 10% of recruits attempting to be a Class I Officer. Paul then entered the Ocean County Police Academy, where he would put his hard work and motivation to use in acquiring all his certifications and his badge. During his 9 month intensive training, Paul succeeded in all that he did, being part of the highest scoring class in recent history, while being in the top of his class as a sharp shooter.
Paul's success followed him onto his path of becoming a full-time officer in the Township of Helmetta, while like his brother, worked part-time in the restaurant. After several years in law enforcement, again, like his brother, knew something was missing.
Upon talking to his father and his brother, Paul knew that the restaurant business was in his blood and that was what he wanted to do. Sal took a step back and realized that with the three of them involved, they carried a lot of potential and there was plenty of opportunity to grow.
Sal quickly decided that he wanted to expand the business to an area of the country that carried the most potential to grow. After months of research, Sal applied to open up a Mezza Luna in "The Villages," Florida. Being a very prominent association, The VIllages did not just allow anyone to open a business within their gates. After a long approval process, Sal's background proved to be ideal for an owner in that location. The Villages asked Sal to open a restaurant within their community and Sal took the opportunity of a lifetime. While still assisting Anthony to run Mezza Luna in Manalapan from behind the scenes, Sal took Paul to Florida to explore their new venture. It is not everyday, you meet two mid-twenty year olds with over 15 years experience in the restaurant industry, but with a father like Sal, I'd say they know what they're doing.