A MAPLEWOOD NATIVE GETS A SECOND SLICE OF VALLEY STREET by Donny Levit
Photography by Julia Maloof Verderosa
Known for slinging pizzas, Sabatino dishes up a new eatery.
When a beloved local pizza place shuts down for even a short spell, it justifiably becomes big gustatory news. Such was the case when Maplewood native Sabatino Perrotta, Jr. announced on his Instagram account in late November 2021 that he was in need of a break. Soon enough, the busy Marsal pizza oven at Sabatino’s cooled down and the butcher paper went up on the windows for some remodeling, leaving the steady flow of regular customers lined up in front of his Valley Street gem pining for his pizza.
“These are probably the first five consecutive days I’ve taken off since 2018,” says Sabatino, who spoke with us in early December 2021 during his self-imposed break, and reflected on his journey to opening his own business. “I have to make sure I’m keeping to my standards.” But the chef is in no way slowing down. Last November, he soft-opened Valley Street Eatery with his business partner, Matt Thornberry. The two have put together a menu that includes breakfast and lunch sandwiches, soups, and baked goods, all served by the experienced cooking duo. And they put the new place together in a mere six weeks.
Born and bred in Maplewood, Sabatino grew up on Oakland Road – a stone’s throw from his new Valley Street Eatery at 530 Valley Street. “My whole life that place was a deli,” he says. “I used to live right behind it and cut through the backyard to get there. It was called the Ritz Deli when I was a kid.” Sabatino attended Tuscan Elementary, Maplewood Middle School, and Columbia High School before pursuing his calling.
Sabatino would be the first to tell you that academics did not come easy for him. “I have quite a few learning disabilities. I’m not great at reading. When they were trying to keep me in class and sit there and read…my mind would just go elsewhere,” he says. “I don’t want to say I was a bad kid, but it was not the greatest experience. School wasn’t my thing.”
That said, Sabatino worked extremely hard to get his grades up so he could follow his passion for food. He took additional classes at Union County College and sent in his application to the Culinary Institute of America, the immersive culinary college located in Hyde Park, New York. His hard work paid off.
“C.I.A. (Culinary Institute of America) changed my life,” he says. “I went from a kid going outside for lunch, smoking cigarettes, doing whatever I wanted, to having to wake up at five o’clock in the morning with a shaved face or I’m getting a zero for the day. I’m looking at myself and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’ It was like a military school.”
Although studying at C.I.A. full time may sound like a tremendous challenge, Sabatino also achieved an incredible health goal. After undergoing gastric bypass surgery, he lost 275 pounds in one year.
“I gained around 100 pounds during my senior year in high school. I finally reached 470 pounds and my doctor told me that I was going to die by the time I was 30,” he says. “And when he asked me if I wanted gastric bypass surgery, I said, yes, I don’t want to die. Also, I was in a basic skills class [at C.I.A.] and an overweight chef told me I was going to have a problem trying to find a job when I was that big in some of these little kitchens.”
He took time off from C.I.A. to focus on his weight loss. “It changed my life completely. I met my first girlfriend when I was 21. I felt like I was 16 years old and in love…that had never happened to me before,” he says. “I started getting attention in all these different ways that I never got attention before. People from high school didn't even recognize who I was.”
Sabatino would go on to do his internship with Harvest Restaurant Group at Grato, an Italian restaurant in Morris Plains. “I was on my way to becoming the chef de cuisine. I had a miscommunication between one of the higher ups and I got laid off after a couple years of work,” he says. “Then I was delivering pizzas and I was trying to figure out what to do. I was talking with a friend of mine about going to Italy. I got on my computer, booked a ticket, and left two weeks later.” Over the next four months, Sabatino would gain invaluable experience, inspiration, and confidence.
“As soon as I landed there, the spark came back,” says Sabatino. He’d travel throughout the country, and work multiple jobs in kitchens – including a stint in Montecatini at his father’s cousin’s bar and café. “It was crazy because everything I did was in Google Translator. Everybody was speaking Italian and I’m just watching tickets flow,” he says. “This is where my A.D.D. kicked in and where my mind would start to work fantastically. They’d start spitting out orders and they’re like, ‘How are you keeping up with me? You don’t even understand what I’m saying.’ It was also amazing because I realized I could cook in any kitchen. That’s the Culinary Institute of America right there. Every kitchen pretty much runs the same.” And after Sabatino returned from Italy, he got the opportunity to run his own kitchen at what now is Sabatino’s Pizza.
“I was driving to get a coffee from 7-Eleven on Valley Street when I saw that the location I’m in now (513 Valley Street) was for rent,” he says. “I called my father and he said that I have to try to do something over there. So I made a phone call. Ten days later, I got the keys and started remodeling.”
By August 2018 – less than four months after he and his father remodeled the entire restaurant – Sabatino’s Pizza was open for business.
“I was nervous about opening up,” he says. “I grew up in Maplewood, I went to high school in Maplewood, and I knew quite a bit of people. When I opened up, the word-of-mouth literally created that whole monster. I mean, I didn’t put a menu out and I didn’t put a website up. I didn’t do any of that. I went against the book 100 percent.” And going against the book included making the decision not to offer delivery. But for Sabatino, that was a deliberate business decision.
“I like to keep the quality of food very high. I’m not an average-sized pizzeria – it’s 695 square feet of usable space and I can only make eight pies 16-inches at a time. A lot of places can do 12 pies at a time. It’s very hard to keep that flow going and not let the oven cool down. I have to get the pickups ready.” And when the pandemic arrived, Sabatino created a window in front of the doorway that would safely serve the steady line of customers who’d loyally trek out for his food. “I just put my whole life into this for a year and a half and this virus came and was about to wipe out my business,” he says. “We were doing every possible thing to make customers feel safe and comfortable.”
For the next chapter of his career, Sabatino wanted to team up with Matt Thornberry, his friend and colleague. The two had worked closely together at both 3 West in Basking Ridge as well as the highly-rated restaurant at the Morris County Golf Club in Morristown. Originally from Mendham, Matt worked as sous-chef under the club’s executive chef Adam Plitt. Plitt is a seasoned industry star who previously worked as the chef de cuisine at Le Bernardin, one of only seven restaurants in New York awarded three Michelin stars.
“We built a relationship and I remember one day saying to Matt that we were going to open up something together,” says Sabatino. Initially, the two looked into the space at 181 Maplewood Avenue – formerly occupied by Sprout, the salad and soup eatery that closed its doors in 2020. “I wanted to put a pastaria in there, but it didn’t work out,” he says.
In late fall 2021, Sabatino noticed construction was taking place inside the former Tara’s Deli. “[By coincidence], that night I gave Sab a call and he told me about it,” said Matt. “It was fate.”
When the two of them went to look at the space, they learned that a Papa John’s Pizza had begun a major remodeling on the space, but then decided to pull out of the project. “We caught it in the middle of the project,” says Sabatino. “But we were able to have a say in putting the kitchen together. Matt and I looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this work.’ And I also realized that – besides True Salvage Cafe – there was no spot for somebody to get breakfast on that side of town or just a bite to eat before getting on the train.”
Similar to the construction and preparation for the pizzeria, Valley Street Eatery came together extremely fast. “From the first time we walked in, it took about a month and a half,” says Sabatino.
According to Matt, the menu was actually the easy part. “Sab and I just talked about food for hours. We bounced ideas off each other and just created,” says Matt. “I say one thing and he says another and then the next thing you know we have a crazy sandwich. The menu came together really quick. One night we just kind of went over ideas of what makes sandwiches good and what we want to do. Obviously, there’s still new stuff to come, but I’m pretty proud of where we’ve gotten so far.”
“I like his attitude and how driven he is,” says Sabatino of his new partner. “He went from cooking three-star Michelin quality food with [Chef Adam Plitt] to incorporating that technique to making a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese with this super crispy potato rösti on top. To see a sous vide machine inside a deli is pretty incredible.”
Both Sabatino and Matt describe the deli as having a neighborhood and comfortable atmosphere. “My mom [Elaine Thornberry] works the register,” says Matt. “She also bakes – the apple turnovers, the Toll House squares, and the chocolate cookies – she makes it here for us. It’s definitely a family vibe.”
Back from his time off, Sabatino is working as hard as ever. “We’re painting and cleaning everything – just resetting up the restaurant. You know, day by day, we’re taking a little piece apart at a time. We’re getting the basement all in line. I guess it’s a never-ending thing,” he says. “I really needed to take this break. I’m keeping up to my high standards.”
Visit Sabatino’s Pizza at 513 Valley Street and Valley Street Eatery at 530 Valley Street.
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock show “Under the Influence” and his jazz show “Kind of Pool” on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.