By Cheryl Conway
Known for its fresh ingredients, like its home-made dressing and delicious eggplant, Branda’s Italian Grill in Budd Lake will be serving dishes that are even fresher with ingredients straight from its very own garden.
A new vegetable garden was just landscaped last month behind the fence at the restaurant to offer the freshest produce to its customers, such as basil, green beans, mint, thyme, “Whatever we can grow,” says Claude Branda of Nutley, owner of Branda’s Italian Grill. The fresh garden ingredients can be used in his delicious salads or favorite dishes.
Branda has invited his employees to help grow the vegetables so they can all take part in providing the best to the customers, he says.
In business for 15 years on May 23, Branda’s Italian Grill was scheduled to hold a celebration Sat., July 9, at 11 a.m., with the Mt. Olive Twp. Mayor and some township officials to recognize the restaurant’s anniversary.
Open every day 11 a.m. and Sundays at noon, Branda’s Italian Grill features recipes from Southern Italy but has a menu so diverse that “you can eat here every day and never eat the same things twice,” says Branda.
Many of his recipes stem from his mom’s cooking from Barci, South Italy, but he also does some cream dishes which is more central or northern Italy, as well as scampi which is more northern Italy style.
“We cook what’s good,” says Branda. “People like alfredo; they like Franchese. “We like dishes that are appealing. We sell hot dogs; we do hamburgers,” he laughs. “Our menu is very diverse.
“We make our own dressings, it makes a difference,” says Branda. “There’s no additives. We use good ingredients. The raspberry vinaigrette dressing is amazing and the “honey mustard dipping sauce is ridiculously good. Antipasto Italiana is superb. Mozzarella we make our own; grilled chicken wraps, bruschetta. We make that ourselves. That’s why you should eat here. We buy fresh wings bake them, deep fry them. We don’t use frozen wings. Lots of stuff we prepare.”
The eggplant, “ours is the best you’ve ever had. We make it homemade. Eggplant lasagna is my mom’s dish. She made it for my birthday. It’s just off the charts.”
Branda also raves about his “great coffee” which is 100 percent Columbian and his homemade desserts. “We have a pastry chef. She makes it special every week. We make our own cannoli cream.”
Branda’s trick, he says, is “we work on stuff. If we could make it better, we make it better,” like the tomato sauce, or the cannoli cream “if it needs another drop, needs less sugar, more cinnamon. You work on it for a month straight. The food is on point.”
Branda also offers catering as well as delivery. He delivers up to nine miles away. First three miles are free; every three miles after that is $2 per mile.
In the food business all of his life, Branda says he enjoys the people the most and feeding others a great meal.
“I really enjoy working for the customers, whether it’s a pizza or a dinner,” he says. Most of all, he likes “feeding people. It kills me if something was wrong or if it was over cooked, it’s devastating. When I hear good things, it makes me happy.”
Branda was working in food sales for 30 years when he came across LaGrada Brick Oven, the former restaurant before it became Branda’s Italian Grill. Branda worked for a food distribution company and would supply the food to LaGrada. When he found out that the owner of LaGrada was going to sell the place, Branda decided to buy the restaurant, officially becoming the new owner on April 15, 2001.
After renovating, preparing and coming up with a new menu, Branda opened his Italian grill on May 23.
Business was not always strong, admits Branda, especially at first. Turning a restaurant around was a challenge and Branda was close to ‘walking out” and closing the doors. But then it was Valentine’s Day 2004, when things turned around for the new restaurant owner.
“We were here for three years so we did a terrific Valentine’s Day,” he describes. “We were so good; place was decorated beautifully; candles along the walkway, menu was just right, service was excellent, food was excellent. Instead of putting the key in the door and walk away, it was a magical night. Here I am 15 years later.”
That night, definitely changed the business. “Anytime you have a really good service, they’re going to talk to other people.
“The business is tremendous now,” says Branda. “We have a pretty solid footing in the community,” being very involved with the schools with discounts and donations, with feeding the high school sports teams.
Having a consistent staff, currently 15 employees, has also helped the business.
“When you have changes, have had different cooks, even if you are using the same ingredients, it changes. Everyone’s pinch and splash is different.” With the same cooks there for three years now, “consistency is important.”
Branda was raised in the food industry. His dad, Frank, owned and Italian food distribution company in Hoboken from 1946 to 1989. Branda went from washing floors, to loading trucks, then became a purchasing agent, importing all over, “mushrooms from China, tomatoes from Italy, anchovies from Portugal.
“I was a buyer; I had to taste everything, sample it.”
When his dad died, Branda and his brothers continued the business for four years then went to work for DiCarlo Food Distributors in N.Y. “We built their routes in the country,” he says.
“That’s how I learned food, a lot of years, a lot of good eating,” says Branda. “Once you are in food, you can’t leave it. You always come back; it’s addicting. You got to love it. You got to have a passion for it.” The same goes with cooking.
“I used to cook dinner for my kids every Sunday,” says Branda, it is a “tradition in the Italian family; Sunday dinner and family. From that it grew. My daughter would ask if she could bring a friend. Three or four people ended up with eight or ten. I’ve always had a passion to feed people. It is the highlight of my day.”
For hours, menu and more information, go to brandasitaliangrill.com.