Rosella Caloiero, owner of the Frenchtown Cafe, was down the Shore enjoying a rare day off when she got the call. A runaway truck had smashed into the restaurant next door and ignited a fireball. Her beloved café fell victim to an onslaught of smoke, heat and hosed water. Luckily, both places had already closed for the evening. Even the upstairs tenants escaped unhurt.
It was August 2018. It took Caloiero two agonizing hours to get back to Frenchtown. The scene shocked her. “She was numb,” says Joanie Garefino, a longtime waitress at the café.
“I tried to stay strong,” Caloiero relates. “I was told that at one point I was down on my knees crying. I remember seeing firemen hacking at the steps to get in and thought, Why couldn’t they go in another way—they’re new steps!”
The building at 44 Bridge Street that housed the Frenchtown Cafe has long been central to the town. It was built in 1897, according to Frenchtown historian Rick Epstein. By 1902, it was thriving as a candy and tobacco store and soda fountain. Ten years later, Frenchtown’s first telephone switchboard was installed there.
Over the years, the place changed hands many times. It was a restaurant when a man named Mickey Miller took over in 1985 and dubbed it Mondo Mick. When Miller decided to sell in 1996, Caloiero and her then husband stepped in.
“It wasn’t much to look at when we bought it,” she admits. The transformation to the Frenchtown Cafe was loving and artful. Caloiero commissioned local craftsman John Maier to create a counter from a black-walnut slab that had once been part of an old ship. She collected vintage photos and used them to create tabletop montages of historic Frenchtown.
“Things like that are important,” she says, “because you catch all the senses when you walk into a restaurant—the atmosphere, the smell, the presentation—even before you get to the food.”
The restaurant business comes naturally to Caloiero. Her parents, Francesco and Carmela, came to America from Italy in 1968 and settled in the heavily Italian Chambersburg section of Trenton, where she grew up.
When Caloiero was in fourth grade, the family moved to Vineland, where her father opened a bakery. He next opened an Italian restaurant, Mama Mia’s, in Williamstown, eventually adding an ice cream parlor in front. At 11, Caloiero learned to manage it; by ninth grade, she had taken over most of the daily duties.
At 21, Caloiero and her future husband opened a place of their own in Cape May—Zoe’s, a breakfast-and-lunch café with a late-night coffeehouse. A few years later, after eloping, they opened another Cape May restaurant, Mediteraneo at the Peter Shields Inn. Eventually, these were sold and she returned to Mama Mia’s to help her parents and look for a new place of their own.
The early years of the café were stressful. “Rosella worked five days in Frenchtown,” says waitress Garefino, “and Friday and Saturday at her parents’ restaurant, while going through a divorce.”
Caloiero carried on, eventually on her own. “She’s a workaholic, and that’s why she has such a good business,” says Frenchtown police chief Adam Kurylka. “She’s a great friend with a great personality, but when it comes to her restaurants, she’s all work.”
After the fire, Caloiero gave some employees hours at Sky Cafe, her second eatery, at Sky Manor Airport in Pittstown. “She went above and beyond, making certain that everyone would still have a job,” says waitress Darcie Ortiz.
Bad weather and the loss of the café and its next-door neighbor, Galasso’s Pizzeria (which was destroyed), hurt business in town by 10 to 30 percent, says Councilwoman Caroline Scutt, co-owner of the Book Garden.
An empty lot stands on the corner where Galasso’s Pizzeria took the direct hit from the runaway truck. In August, the rebuilt Cafe, with ladder propped outside, was nearing completion. Photo by Paul Bartholomew
“People used to come to eat at the café and then walk around and do some shopping,” says chief Kurylka. “If there is anything that could hurt a town businesswise, it’s the loss of two major eateries. We’ve had fires and floods here throughout the years, but we’ve never had something impact the community like this.”
Caloiero hired Dorsey Reading of nearby Erwinna to rebuild the café and remodel the front to look much as it did in 1897. They managed to save much of the black-walnut counter. Reading created new tabletops by sanding and polishing wood salvaged from the café walls.
After more than a year of work, Caloiero is expecting to reopen this fall. The breakfast-and-lunch spot will again offer its American menu, along with such specialties as poached eggs Florentine and the pub burger (frizzled onions, cheddar, horseradish mayo.)
“The Frenchtown Cafe is an anomaly,” says Bob Schenewolf, a regular. “It’s one of the very few businesses that does well with both visitors and locals.”
Says Caloiero, “It was the most stressful year of my life. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But on the bright side, it’s a better place because we got to make changes that make it more efficient, and yet still maintain that old-time feel.”