On a quiet, tree-lined, residential side street in the middle of Lawrenceville’s Eldridge Park neighborhood, Candela Pizzeria and Ristorante still serves the traditional Sicilian recipes of Vito and Rosalie Candela, just as it has for 50 years.
While you might still find Vito and Rosalie in the alcove off the kitchen where take-out customers pick up their pizzas, brothers Pete and Frank Candela have run the show for 20 years now. Pete is the head chef in the kitchen, with Frank making pizzas between greeting customers and working the tables.
Their motto, “There’s always a Candela in the kitchen,” is not just a gimmick—there really is always at least one member, and sometimes more members, of the family supervising and cooking.
Vito came to the United States from Sicily in 1960 and met and married Rosalie in New York. They moved to Lawrence in 1968 and purchased the restaurant, which had served Italian food under two previous owners since 1947.
“My parents came here from Sicily for better opportunities,” Pete said. “Dad came here on a Danish merchant ship and traveled around the world before arriving in New York. Dad was a farmer in Sicily. He had lemon and orange orchards and also grew onions and tomatoes.”
“During WWII, the U.S. Army bought all of my grandfather’s onions and lemons when he was on the way to a market in Palermo,” Frank said. “They then asked about bread, so my grandmother made bread for all the soldiers. They were out of rations and the soldiers appreciated the fresh food.”
Maintaining consistency is the goal at Candela’s.
“Basically, we’ve been using the same recipes for the last 50 years,” Frank said. “Many of the vegetables are grown in the backyard garden in season. We try to give the best product, and we’re not going to lower our product standards.”
Frank and Pete both attended St. Ann’s through the 8th grade, with Frank moving on to Notre Dame for two years before finishing at Lawrence High School. Pete went straight to LHS and both laugh about then attending “Candela University.” Their sisters, Rosalie and Francesca, worked the restaurant when they were younger, but are not involved now.
The waitstaff has primarily come from Lawrence High, Notre Dame and Rider for most of the 50 years the restaurant has been in business.
“Our waitstaff keeps on referring their relatives,” Frank says. “We try to keep our staff for four to six years until they finish high school and college.”
And the owners give back to the communities their employees come from. Candela’s is a long-time sponsorship of Lawrence Lacrosse.
“A couple of guys came in here when they were trying to start the league,” Pete said. “It was a lot of money, but it was for the kids and it’s good to do things for the community. They’ve expanded from the original four teams to over 30 teams.”
The restaurant also works with the Rider basketball team, Rider golf outing and catering for other university events. Candela’s has also sponsored soccer and baseball.
Pizza and the homemade lasagna are the best sellers at Candela’s, with daily specials for both lunch and dinner. The lunch menu includes salad and Candela’s garlic knots with entrees.
“A lot of people like our daily specials,” Pete noted. “A couple of weeks ago, we even made ribs and sold out. Everyone who tried them loved them. Our cooks like to be creative. When they suggest something, we try it in-house first and if it’s good, we put in on as a daily special.”
Candela’s extensive menu includes many appetizers, salads, a variety of gourmet pizza (or design your own), baked Italian specialties, pasta, hot and cold sandwiches and panini, calzones, seafood, chicken and veal. Cheesesteaks come in a variety of styles, with hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken tenders for those wanting a more American dish. Children’s preferences abound with pasta, gnocchi, ravioli, a smaller pizza, baked ziti with meatballs, breaded flounder and chicken tenders.
In addition to pizza and lasagna, veal dishes and chicken cacciatore are popular. Patrons also enjoy a pasta dish with calamari, Frank said. Soups are made daily.
College students, Pete said, often opt for the buffalo chicken pizza, and the cavatelli calorosa—made with a sweet and spicy sauce with plum tomatoes, sausage red pepper, roasted red peppers and mozzarella—is another guest favorite, especially around lunchtime. Desserts like tiramisu, cheesecakes and cannoli are made in-house.
The cozy dining room seats 48, with additional seating at a couple of tables with umbrellas outside in the summer.
“We’re getting ready to remodel a bit. The wallpaper has been up since 1984, so that will come down to be replaced with paint. We will also add new lighting, new chairs and new curtains,” Frank said.
There is usually little or no waiting during the week. The restaurant is kid-friendly, Frank said.
“We have a family that comes here from Bensalem, Pennsylvania,” Frank said. “They have to pass 10-12 Italian restaurants to get here, but they keep coming back. When you come here and have a delightful experience, you will come back.”
Catering is also a big part of Candela’s business, either in the restaurant for small groups or in halls or homes in the area for First Communions, birthday and retirement parties, and family get-togethers.
Reflecting on the future, Frank said, “We’ve been here serving the community since 1968. We want to continue bringing people good food and happiness for many years. We’re not going to get rich in the restaurant business anymore. Smiling faces are the thanks we look for.”
Candela is located at 22 Lawn Park Ave. in Lawrence. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday, noon-9:30 p.m. on Sunday. Phone: (609) 882-9119. On the web, including online ordering: candelapizza.com.