by Richard and Missy Lee
In the course of researching and writing a book for teens, “Careers in the Restaurant Industry,” we learned that running a restaurant is one of the toughest businesses you can undertake. Survival — much less success — is relatively rare; so many things can go wrong. Yet for the gifted entrepreneur, hospitality can be rewarding in more ways than one.
Such a person is the hearty and charming Rob Rosato, who launched Scoogi’s Classic Italian restaurant, bar and catering business in Flourtown 20 years ago, at age 24. From his days at Wissahickon High School, Rob’s dream was to own a restaurant, but the road he traveled to make his dream come true was almost from the frying pan into the fire. Rob graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York (frying pan), and then worked for Marabella’s restaurant in Avalon (more frying pan), and for the late Chef Tell Erhardt, at his enterprises stateside and in the Cayman Islands (definitely the fire). Tempered by that crucible, Rob rented an existing restaurant at 738 Bethlehem Pike in 1990, and Scoogi’s was born.
Only at first it wasn’t Scoogi’s, which is not a real word in Italian; it was to be a possessive derived from scoozi, which is “excuse me” in Italian. It was only after the signage and menus were done that, as Rob said, “I got a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney in Chicago. There was this Midwest chain of Italian restaurants named Scoozi’s, and they didn’t want us using the name. So I fired back: Was it OK [with them] if I changed ‘z’ to ‘g’? It was. We did. And that’s why the place is named Scoogi’s.”
Clearly, this ill-fated beginning was not an evil omen, for Scoogi’s has flourished. (Rob bought the facility after five years.) “It starts from the top,” Rob said with a sly smile. Yes, as owner and executive chef, he does set the standard, but he’s especially proud of his 48 employees who maintain it, sparked by general manager Lynda Engler. At times, the staff includes his father, Angelo, who enjoys doing kitchen prep, and his mother, Marie Louise, who has a way with desserts. The elder Rosatos have retired to Florida, but still visit — and work —periodically. Rob’s wife, Jennifer, also helps out; however, she is a full-time nursery school teacher at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Blue Bell. The Rosatos, who live in Gwynedd Valley, have four children: Sophia, 12; Angelo, 10; Robert, 8; and Thomas, 6.
Rob and his staff play the versatility of the Scoogi’s building like a Stradivarius. Its main dining room and adjoining atrium seat 120, with another 20 seats in the connecting bar. Folding screens help adapt these spaces for lunches and even dinners along with simultaneous private parties. (We were once served lunch on a day when the restaurant was hosting two funeral buffets; service was attentive despite the crush, and the food was as good as ever.)
Ah, the food; bet you thought we’d never get there! “We stress value in our menus,” said Rob. “We’re more creative than some restaurants, but we’re not sophisticated past the point of pleasing the customer.” Also, Scoogi’s is generous. “We want people to feel they’re getting a lot of food for the money.” We can attest to that; many a Scoogi’s lunch or dinner has done next-day duty at our house.
The extensive and attractive menus for lunch, dinner and banquets can be viewed online (www.scoogis.com). Doing so will give you far more time to explore than would be the case when, at lunch, for instance, you are faced with 18 appetizers, six soups, nine salads, and — well, you get the idea. Many items, marked with tiny tomatoes, are vegetarian.
One of our favorite lunch and dinner appetizers that’s almost a veggie meal in itself is described thusly: “Baked Brinata, an Italian-style Brie [cheese] nested in puff pastry and baked until golden brown, topped with caramelized onions, figs and a sweet balsamic glaze.” This gem is $10.95. “Our cheese purveyor put me onto this one,” Rob told us, “when he had me sample the Brinata. It’s a little different from Brie, but has the same character. I built this dish around it.”
At dinner, we are especially fond of, among the dozen seafood dishes over pasta, Scoogi’s Seafest: clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and jumbo lump crabmeat simmered in marinara sauce and served over angel hair pasta. Easily enough for two (or for tomorrow’s lunch), this is among the higher-priced offerings at $23.95.
These are just samples of the wide-ranging menu. And yes, unlike the policy at many restaurants, you can have pizzas, sandwiches and burgers at dinner as well as lunch. Also, the entire Scoogi’s menu is available as take-out.
How has Rob Rosato developed such an extensive yet distinctly Italian menu? “We’re always reviewing the menus, to track what’s popular and what needs improving. When we create a new dish, or our variation of a classic, I use my staff as a focus group; they taste-test every dish, and their opinions count. Together, we decide what goes in and what comes out.”
Ever the good marketer, Rob and the Scoogi’s staff offer dinner and lunch specials, including what we call “frequent fryer cards;” offering $7.95 off every seventh lunch and $9.95 off every seventh dinner. Other dinner specials include bring-your-own-wine on Mondays, 7 items at $7 each on Wednesdays, and Kids Eat Free on Sundays. Also on deck is Texas Hold ‘Em in the bar on Wednesday nights, plus other bar-only specials. And, leaving no opportunity ignored, the restaurant will be offering a mystery-dinner theater production, yet to be named, starting in January.
In just one of his many gestures of goodwill to the Wissahickon Valley he calls home, Rob and the group producing the show will audition at Wissahickon High School to cast two juvenile roles for the production. And if all goes well, a second show — not a mystery — will be added in February.
Scoogi’s Classic Italian, 738 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, is open daily for lunches and dinners, take-out, banquets and off-premises catering. Reservations suggested, especially on weekends: 215-233-1063. To view history and menus: www.scoogis.com.