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Where customers can wear whatever they want, including the marinara


Allora’s fig carpaccio with prosciutto di Parma crostini. | WWW.ALLORAFOOD.COM

It’s uncommon in South Jersey to find a restaurant where the owner is also the executive chef, unless of course, you’re at Allora. Based in Marlton, Mark Berenato’s 130-seat Italian eatery is a South Jersey Magazine Golden Fork winner and was dubbed a “real deal Italian restaurant” by nj.com.

It must be in Berenato’s blood. His maternal grandmother was a Calabrian home cook who made everything from scratch, and his paternal grandfather was a Sicilian farmer, who canned tomatoes in the basement. Many years before the chef was born, his grandfather owned a little luncheonette in Hammonton on the Black Horse Pike. Years later, Berenato’s own first job in a kitchen was washing dishes at a place called Scrapinato’s, also on the Black Horse Pike. 

“If you would’ve asked me at 17 what I was going to do with my life,” the chef reminisces, “I would’ve been like, ‘I’m not washing one more friggin’ dish.’ I strongly despised washing dishes. I thought it was just the most menial job in the world. But it got me to where I’m at today.” 

Today, if a dishwasher doesn’t show, Berenato can be spotted at the sink instead of at his station. It’s all part of the labor shortage brought on by the pandemic. But Berenato isn’t one to complain if he has to get wet or dirty occasionally. 

A 25-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Berenato opened Allora, which translates to “So, then,” a little less than 10 years ago. In that time, he’s hardly made things easy on himself. He sautés 90 percent of what comes out of the kitchen, and continues to promise customers even more fresh pasta options. 

Berenato takes great pride in serving what he and his family like to eat. The food reminds me of spending time in my grandparents’ kitchens. It isn’t fussy, and diners can wear whatever they want in the dining room, including the marinara. 

The last time I ate at the restaurant, I ordered cavatelli Genovese. It’s house-made ricotta pasta tossed in olives and finished with a San Marzano tomato sauce, the likes of which I’d not eaten since my Nonna made my family red sauce when I was a kid. That same sauce is the base for the Suppli, delicate, crispy rice croquettes that taste like a cross between that first bite of a mozzarella stick and a forkful of shepherd’s pie. It’s no wonder they’re the house specialty. 

Being a sommelier, I brought along a bottle of Cru Beaujolais for the meal and found the balance between sweet and savory flavors striking. During our interview, I wondered aloud to the chef if he would be interested in converting the restaurant from a BYOB. “The dream someday is to have a restaurant with a liquor license, but the price of them is astronomical,” he said. “A normal mom and pop would either need to have an investor or have a lot of money saved to be able to afford one and we’re not at that point yet.” 

Chef’s approach is pragmatic. I applaud that considering how much of Marlton’s restaurant real estate is marred by chains. Within two miles of the restaurant there’s a Brio, Cracker Barrel, and Bonefish Grill. 

Back in the kitchen, Berenato likes to run homemade bucatini as a special. It’s his favorite pasta and mine. It could be mistaken for spaghetti at first glance, but it’s thicker. Rather than an All’ Amatriciana, a classic sauce made from peeled tomatoes, thinly sliced guanciale (pork jowl), and a healthy sprinkling of pepper (red and black), Allora’s bucatini is served with an All’ Romano sauce made up of garlic, peas, and shaved cheese (without the cream). 

In a phone call, Berenato admits that he isn’t a huge fan of cheese or seafood and that his wife isn’t a fan of complicated red sauces or spicy foods. Since he and his wife and kids eat at the restaurant constantly, he wants the menu to reflect his family (his wife and two kids) and extended family (his customers). 

“Allora is me. How many places are you going out to eat and getting the owner to cook your food? That’s what Allora’s known for. I’m here 12-15 hours per day because people are spending their hard-earned money. They’re paying for really good food and really good service. I don’t do it for the money. I mean, yes – I have bills and a business, and the business is how I support my family, but I do this because I enjoy it. I do this because it’s a passion. I’m constantly thinking about how I can make the menu better and how I can make guests happier.” 

Before we hang up and service gets underway, Berenato plans to prep a fresh batch of bucatini. I plan to order it the next time I dine-in, with my view of the Greentree Square Shopping Center and the now permanently closed TGI Fridays, which famously served loaded potatoes.

Nikki Palladino

Nikki Palladino is a writer, instructor and wine enthusiast living in South Jersey. Her writing has appeared in literary magazines as well as online poetry collections. She’s a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Masters, and at work on a young-adult novel about first-generation Italian-American teens whose parents own competing Italian restaurants. Follow her @nikki_pall.

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