Two new restaurants have recently joined the dynamic dining scene in Hopewell Borough — one begun by a local entrepreneur known better to the community for his work as a painter than a chef, and the other by a culinary couple who are new to town but well known elsewhere for their restaurants.
Tomatillo’s Mexican Cuisine opened for business in May in the former Jack and Charlie’s. Its menu has a familiar feel for fans of Qdoba, Chipotle and Moe’s Southwest Grill. Chef Harold Tello is serving up burritos, tacos, quesadillas and salads for lunch and dinner.
Tello, 59, can usually be found dishing out the meals from behind his stainless steel steam table. Patrons might recognize him as the owner of The World of Paint on Princeton Avenue. He also has his own painting and contracting company called Painting the World.
Tomatillo’s is a family affair. Daughter Katherine, a 2006 graduate of Hopewell Valley Central High School, is a veterinary nurse who helps out with the business in addition to working at her full-time job. Her brother Jonathan (Class of 2008) works at the restaurant and the paint store. Harold’s wife Ayda is also involved behind the scenes.
Katherine says her dad harbored “his own little secret” of opening a restaurant for years. After immigrating to Florida from Cali, in Colombia, some 30 years ago, Tello worked as a sous chef in several restaurants before starting his painting career. It turns out that he never quite quelled his culinary aspirations.
Late last year he learned that the space was available at 23 E. Broad St., and few months later he leased it from building owner Clark Reed. He repainted it and brought in the steam table, and after several months spent perfecting his recipes, he was ready to go.
Tomatillo’s has some counter seating inside and patio seats outside, but the restaurant is designed more with carry-out customers in mind. Tello chose Mexican cuisine because he felt there was demand for a Tex-Mex restaurant in the borough.
The menu may look familiar with its meat choices of chicken, steak, carnitas and chorizo and all the traditional burrito and taco fixings — including guacamole — to go with them. But there are some interesting flourishes to set Tomatillo’s apart. Filling options include not only rice, but also orzo and a starch alternative, cauliflower rice.
“Most Mexican restaurants the food has a lot of spice and a lot of grease,” Katherine said in a recent interview. “We wanted to keep it as healthy as you can and still keep it Mexican. We wanted to give our customers who are gluten free something to enjoy.”
Though Tomatillo’s doesn’t have a full kitchen, Katherine said her father prepares all food fresh each day in a professional setup at a nearby site. On Fridays in particular, Tello lets his professional training show through with specials like pulled pork tacos or chicken fajitas with avocado cilantro salsa verde and roasted pepper coulis.
Katherine says response has been good so far.
“We definitely have our repeat customers,” she said. “Some people are coming almost every day for lunch. Of course there are the little things we’ve had to change — people have given us good feedback so we can improve. The most important thing for a first-time restaurant owner is to get all the feedback we can. It’s important to have that community feel.”
Tomatillo’s Mexican Cuisine, 23 E. Broad St., Hopewell. Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (609) 466-0001.
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Basilico Trattoria also opened in May in the space that had previously been occupied by Chef Sarah Gresko’s Sweet Grass. Chef Giuseppe “Joey” Trani and partner (in business and in life) Kari LaSpisa have opened several restaurants in New Jersey in the last few years, including Taste in Warren and Al Dente in Hillsborough.
They had considered opening a restaurant at 9B E. Broad St. a few years ago, but Gresko acted first. After the well-reviewed Sweet Grass closed late last year, the couple didn’t let the opportunity pass again.
Having recently closed Taste, the Hillsborough residents jumped at their second chance to establish themselves in Hopewell. (Gresko is still around; she is now the chef at the Hopewell Valley Inn and Bistro.)
The menu at Basilico is seasonal Italian cuisine inspired by the region of Campania, where Trani lived and worked for many years. For the summer there are entrées like chicken milanese and frutti di mare, featuring seafood in a cherry tomato wine sauce. There’s always a four-cheese ravioli on the menu, served with a creamy pink sauce in spring, shrimp and zucchini now, and perhaps with butternut squash in the fall, LaSpisa said in an interview. She handles the restaurant’s front end and is the event coordinator for Basilico (Italian for basil).
Chef Trani was born in Princeton, but when he was 6 his family moved to Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, where he earned his culinary stripes and began his career as a chef and restaurateur. Before returning to the U.S. in 2013, he owned a restaurant in Ischia for 10 years called Brontolo American Pub.
For now, Basilico is only open for dinner; they had been open for lunch in the spring, but made the decision not to offer lunch for the summer. LaSpisa says they might consider opening again for lunch in the future.
There’s live music on Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are family nights, with meals served family style. One unusual feature of Basilico that isn’t on the menu has to do with the way meals are prepared. Trani is a solo act in the kitchen, making everything by himself alone.
“He actually does better under pressure,” LaSpisa said. “He’s the kind of person that does work better alone. We feel like that adds to the dishes that come out, that people can be assured that they’re coming from him.”
That might seem like a lot of work for one person, but Trani for one doesn’t seem convinced. He and LaSpisa are already preparing to open a second location in the Hopewell Valley, this time in Pennington.
They are making preparations to open the second Basilico in the recently closed site of The Place on North Main Street. The sign is already over the door and LaSpisa says they hope to open in August. The menu will center on panini — sandwiches — which LaSpisa said they think will be a hit in Pennington. The additional location could test Trani’s ability to do all the cooking himself, and indeed Basilico’s Facebook page does feature an advertisement for a kitchen worker.
Trani will still be the heart of both restaurants. He plans to make the food in Pennington through lunch, then make it up to Hopewell in time for dinner. “We don’t really relax that much,” LaSpisa said.
Basilico Trattoria, 9B E. Broad St., Hopewell. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. (609) 333-9900.