Restaurants come and restaurants go; it’s a fact of life. But some very few mysteriously live on, decade after decade, earning and keeping loyal (some would say, fanatic) customers while simultaneously keeping faith with the past and changing just enough to keep them from becoming yesterday’s news.
Such is the case with Hamilton’s Homestead Inn.
In 1939, brothers-in-law Chick Peroni and Nello Rosati bought a former speakeasy and land that in the 19th century was the Kuser family farm. In the years since, it has become legendary for its traditional Roman-style Italian fare, being embraced by and embracing famous and colorful characters, eccentricities (including the lack of a printed menu until 2015), and an aversion to change.
Peter Rosati, 45, represents the third generation of his family to own and operate Chick & Nello’s, as it is affectionately called by its legions of fans. He modestly attributes the restaurant’s longevity and iconic status to, in the main, luck.
“Certain things, you’re just lucky. My grandfather, Nello, was fortunate enough to secure a property that is its own entity,” Rosati says of the Kuser Road site.
“With a nice piece of land attached, we have private parking, so customers don’t have to worry about finding parking or changes to parking regulations, which are issues in, say, Trenton. Also, we are stand-alone—not part of a shopping mall or shopping center where we’d have landlords. You know what they say: location, location, location. Chick Peroni and Nello Rosati got lucky coming into this place.”
Rosati feels lucky as well with his restaurant’s clientele, many of whom have been coming for generations.
“That really helps you go on. Some women were in just last week and said they were the fifth generation of their family to come here,” he says with pride. “You build a rapport; they become like family. In my own time, I’ve asked, for example, ‘How are the little girls?’ and they say, ‘One’s in her second year of college and the other just graduated.’ It’s nice. Their grandfather dined with my grandfather, and they saw each other’s kids grow up. To them, it’s like they’re going back home. We pick up the conversation from last time just as if there was no time lapse in between. You get into people’s lives. You care; it happens.
“You know, it’s a storied place with a small dining room, so you never know who you’ll sit next to or what you’ll overhear. Our customers are so welcoming that when you sit down next to someone, chances are you’ll wind up in conversation together.”
Over the years, the restaurant’s clientele has become storied, too. Influential politicians, so-called Mafiosi, prominent local families, and even celebrities like television pioneer and Trenton native Ernie Kovaks were and are among its fans. (For lively tales of Chick & Nello’s very colorful past, check out online a Hidden Trenton interview from 2009 with two generations of the Rosati family.)
Just like his grandfather, Nello, and his father, Giacomo, who just turned 86, Peter Rosati recognizes his many regulars on sight.
“I know who’s coming in on which days and almost always what they’re going to eat,” he says. “Certain tables, I know what they want before they sit down. They don’t even have to order. The salads, et cetera are just brought to the table. Say, it’s Thursday night regulars. They order like they did 25 years ago. It’s fun and it makes it so it’s not work for me, exactly. It makes work enjoyable.”
Every table is greeted with a plate of marinated long green peppers and a basket of bread. Some of the traditional Italian dishes have been on the menu since the restaurant’s earliest days. Most are Roman-style, like chicken cacciatore made not with tomato sauce, but rather with white wine, olives, and rosemary.
The house specialty is Pasta Primo, a blending of garlic-and-oil sauce with the house pork ragu, which was created by onetime chef Primo DiGiacomo, who retired in 2003 after 42 years in the kitchen. (Both pasta sauces are offered separately as well, along with marinara, alfredo, amatriciana, and vongole.)
Other best-sellers include, Rosati says, “Anything off the grill: our lamb chops, veal chops, porterhouse steaks. Everything is grilled over real charcoal.” The specials of the day—roast breast of veal on Wednesday, for example—represent another big draw. “Today is Thursday, and we had exactly one order of yesterday’s breast of veal left over. A customer came in and couldn’t believe her luck that she was able to snag it on a Thursday.” Thursday’s special of roast pork may occasionally be available on Friday. “But Friday is haddock in marinara. That sells out completely,” Rosati says.
Although meals at Chick & Nello’s can end with traditional Italian desserts such as tartuffo and tiramisu, the most popular consists of three scoops of Arctic peanut butter ice cream, made in nearby Ewing. And regulars often opt for the addition of anisette to their postprandial coffee or espresso.
Even today, the kitchen staff includes at least one cook who has been there for 30-plus years, and a few who worked under Primo. “They become family, too,” Rosati says. “They grow up here; their families grow up with our families.” Rosati considers himself among the longest-tenured waitstaff, all of whom wear white shirts and black ties. Most days, the 45-year-old Rosati is at the restaurant for both lunch and dinner service. “I take customers’ orders, I deliver, I bartend—I do a little bit of everything,” he says. “After lunch, I go upstairs to take care of business in the office. Then it’s back down to the floor for dinner. That’s how I’ve earned the customers’ loyalty.”
When it comes to making changes to any aspect of Chick & Nello’s, Rosati admits, “It’s walking a tightrope. We have to ask ourselves, what is it that has made us so welcoming all these years? You really have to weigh any changes you do make. You have to keep customers comfortable. It’s difficult.” The restaurant started accepting credit cards only in 2008 and never had a written menu until 2015. Before that, it was recited with no prices mentioned (although regulars didn’t need the recitation).
Two years ago, the interior got new floors and ceilings and a lick of paint “here and there,” Rosati says. But the barroom, where guests enter, and the small dining room, one step down, still feature the original wood paneling interspersed with faded wallpaper, decades-old sconces, and ancient black and white photos and prints.
For many years, the restaurant was owned and operated by Nello’s son, Giacomo, and his son-in-law, Ernie Virok, who had married Giacomo’s daughter, Julie. In the natural order of things, Giacomo and Ernie had brought in their sons, Peter, who ran the front of the house, and David, who cooked. “Then a couple of years back the family split,” Peter Rosati says. “My father and I took the restaurant over from the Viroks.”
The biggest change to the operation occurred in 2015, when the two sides of founder Nello Rosati’s family split and long-time customer Lee Forrester and his son, Randy, became partners. Randy Forrester came on as chef, and the wine list was expanded to about 50 labels, mostly from Italy but also some from California. “We came back from vacation after buying out the Virok side and realized we had to do something to show that we could change,” Rosati says. “Randy [Forrester] and his father both have a vast knowledge of wine. So we wanted wines that match our great food.” The best seller these days is Antinori’s Peppoli Chianti Classico. The list includes two large-format wines and one small format (Luigi Righetti Amarone).
Randy Forrester is no longer in the kitchen. “He came on to help with the transition,” Rosati explains. “He’s a very talented chef, but it wasn’t Randy’s kind of cooking. ‘Traditional’ isn’t what he enjoys. He was limited here as to what he could do. We’re here some 78 years, and we’re using my grandfather’s recipes. My grandfather taught Primo, who handed them down to David [Virok], et cetera. Randy had to cook what didn’t jazz him; it wasn’t using his talents. (Randy Forrester and his wife, Ally, opened their own restaurant, Osteria Radici, in Allentown this fall.)
When asked about Chick & Nello’s bar program, Rosati laughs. “It’s not really a program. Our bar is more like a clubhouse: you know who’s going to be there what day, at what time. You know what drink to put down at the right spot at the bar,” he says. “It’s gotten really big the last two years. The camaraderie, the joking. Our bartender is a very entertaining guy, so there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of shared jokes.”
As for future changes, Peter Rosati has a vague idea of exploring outdoor dining, but that’s about all. And the next generation of the Rosati family? Peter and his wife, Felicia, have three children, ages 12, 10, and 4.
“I don’t know that I’ll encourage them, because this is a tough business; it’s hard. I get up with them in the morning and get them off to school, but then that’s it. Right now, I don’t know, although if one or more shows interest, I won’t discourage them. Of course, you don’t know what even the next five years will hold for any restaurant. Dining out is a luxury item,” he says, dependent as it is on the economy and many other factors. Chick & Nello’s customers, though, are not worried.
Chick & Nello’s Homestead Inn, 800 Kuser Road, Hamilton. Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m. Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. 609-890-9851 or homestead1939.com.
A version of this story was published in the Sept. 27, 2017 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper.