2009-09-DolceandClementesTavolaCaldaBistro
Joe and Paul Clemente stand at the front of Tavola Calda, their new restaurant, in Washington Town Center. (Staff photo by Rob Anthes.)

As construction on new Washington Town Center buildings proceeds west on Route 33, the original commercial building in Robbinsville’s mixed-use, “smart-growth” community recently has had some momentum of its own.

Town Center received a couple of hits in the winter, with the closing of It’s A Grind coffee shop — which anchored the first Town Center building’s prominent western corner — Feb. 17 and the transition of a shoulder on Route 33 into another lane of traffic a few months before that.

Business owners and township administration complained the loss of the shoulder would prevent Town Center from living up to its initial billing as a “walkable” community and proved a safety hazard with highway traffic merging at 45 mph directly in front of the development. The loss of It’s A Grind signaled a bit of vulnerability in a development that still hadn’t been completed.

Now, not only does Route 33 West have its shoulder back — providing convenient roadside parking along Town Center — but the center’s corner shop is no longer dark.

On July 15, Dolce and Clemente’s Tavola Calda bistro opened, putting Town Center back at full strength. Tavola Calda, which is Italian for “hot table,” will serve as a compliment to the year-old Dolce and Clemente’s Italian Gourmet Market. Tavola Calda isn’t a full-service restaurant, Clemente said, instead following the Italian tradition of having a location to grab a quick bite or a cup of coffee next to the town market.

It offers breakfast sandwiches, paninis, deserts and Italian coffee, as well as a featured entrée and two side dishes brought from the market and heated on the store’s namesake steam table.

There also is indoor and outdoor seating for people who want to eat what they’ve bought at either the market or the bistro. Co-owner Joe Clemente said customers had been asking him to add a place to eat the food they bought at the market. Clemente said he didn’t hesitate when his landlord approached him about the location soon after It’s A Grind’s owners announced their decision to close. He embraced the opportunity to open a store in the prominent location, which sits directly in front of the Italian market’s spot at the corner of Town Center’s second building.

“This gives me Route 33 exposure, which I didn’t have before,” Clemente said. “Now people can actually see where Dolce and Clemente’s is. I envision having all the tables from the corner down to the market full at lunch, people walking around Town Center.”

Dolce and Clemente’s will try to foster that atmosphere Sept. 12 by holding a festival from noon to 5 p.m. on the sidewalk along the Italian market and Tavola Calda to celebrate the grand opening of the bistro and the first anniversary of the market’s opening. There will be face painting, balloons and classic cars on display, along with food samplings from both Dolce and Clemente’s stores.

But Town Center business owners already have seen some signs of life in the development, perhaps now further stimulated by Tavola Calda and the reinstallation of the shoulder.

“People are starting to stroll around,” said Jack D’Agostino, owner of Jack and Jules Men’s Shop in Town Center. “They call this downtown Robbinsville, and it’s definitely like a downtown area. You can see this is starting to work. We need that parking in front.”

D’Agostino said he’s beginning to see people walk to Town Center for coffee, ice cream or pizza and decide to stop in and check out his store, as well.

While he’s pleased Tavola Calda opened to give potential customers a full complement of stores to browse, D’Agostino benefits in another way. Now he has a place just a few steps away to grab breakfast in the morning.

“It’s convenient, and it’s great for the community,” D’Agostino said. “On Saturdays, all the parents come with their strollers. It’s nice. And we’re here [at Tavola Calda] every day.”

That support is only one reason Town Center has started to gr ow.

The main difference, Clemente said, between Town Center and other locations is the family atmosphere fostered in the development. Having stores close together and easily accessible by walking allows business owners to more easily form relationships with each other and customers. Clemente said he believes the relationships will only strengthen as Town Center grows into its original purpose as a downtown area.

“Most of us have grown up in business,” Clemente said. “I started at 9 years old. You realize how nice it is to have this. There’s interaction with the customers. That’s what makes Town Center really special. “We’re all family-oriented businesses. I know more customers here in one year than I did in my last location in five years,” he said.