The eggplant Parmesan is so popular at Rosalie’s Trattoria, the restaurant can’t keep the vegetable in stock, said owner Al Cervini.
“We gotta go get cases of eggplant three times a week,” the New York native said.
Cervini opened his Wilmington restaurant late last year. In the months since then, Rosalie’s Trattoria has built a following and now has about an hour-long wait on Fridays and Saturdays for tables.
The restaurant, at 5031 Market St. in the building previously occupied by Crispino’s Pizzeria, offers traditional Italian dishes, including eggplant, chicken and veal Parmigiana (Parmesan), calamari marinara, fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti carbonara and pasta primavera, among many other entrees.
Some of the appetizers on the menu include calamari fritti; pasta nachos, which consist of fried Italian pasta chips topped with sausage, black olives, banana peppers and homemade Alfredo sauce; and eggplant sorrentino, which is eggplant fried a golden brown, baked with fresh mozzarella and basil and topped with roasted red pepper and housemade balsamic reduction.
A chef’s specialty, Italian cheesecake, is on the dessert list, made with creamy mascarpone and sweetened ricotta on a graham cracker crust.
So why did Cervini, who is also a partner in a gastro pub near Raleigh called The Iron Lantern, decide to open an eatery that serves Italian food? He said it was because that’s a specialty of the restaurant’s chef, Ramiro Perez.
“He’s the best,” Cervini said of Perez. “He grew up in Manhattan. He was throwing pizzas with the old-timers at 10 years old.”
Like Perez, Cervini also grew up in New York, mainly in Saratoga, but moved to North Carolina because of his military career. A former Marine, Cervini said he fell in love with Wilmington while stationed at Camp Lejeune.
“I was over in Jacksonville and weekends, I was here,” he said. “This place is just beautiful, especially for the family – my daughter, she loves the beach.”
Cervini, a Raleigh resident now who has been commuting, said he was recruited to take over the a restaurant space on Market Street by the owner of Crispino’s, John Crispino, who had opened his New Yorkstyle pizza restaurant there in 2018.
It was a while before Cervini could take a look at the Wilmington space because of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall near Wrightsville Beach in September and cut off routes to the Port City with its flooding.
“We were in talks about the restaurant, and I couldn’t drive down here to see it,” he said.
But the restaurant and Cervini’s interest in the property weathered the storm. He leased the spot from Crispino, who still owns the building, and Rosalie’s Trattoria, named after Al Cervini’s wife, opened Nov. 18.
Trattoria means an Italian restaurant that serves simple meals, as opposed to the more formal ristorante or osteria (among numerous other Italian terms for various eateries).
Cervini said word-of-mouth has driven the eatery’s popularity, and Rosalie’s takes reservations.
For Cervini, who after leaving the military went into law enforcement and then worked as a private corporate ivestigator, the restaurant industry seemed a better option.
“The corporate world is very shaky, and I’ve seen a lot of people just have their positions eliminated, so I was thinking, ‘What can I do that I love that I can employ myself ?’ I can wake up in the morning and know I’m employed, take care of my family and have fun,” Cervini said. “This was it.”
But it wasn’t a sudden change when he decided to go into the restaurant business four years ago.
“I made a three-year plan to leave corporate,” Cervini said, “with Excel spreadsheets and everything.”
Cervini has been commuting six days a week from Raleigh, and his wife, a full-time educator, has been working at Rosalie’s Trattoria from Fridays through Sundays. But that is expected to change.
“We just got a place here two weeks ago,” Cervini said recently. “Because of Florence, we couldn’t get a place.”
When their teenage daughter graduates from high school in Raleigh next year, he said the move to Wilmington will be permanent for the whole family.
Meanwhile, the restaurant is branching out already, with new wines on the menu.
Along those lines, Cervini was recently taking reservations for a May 20 wine dinner of five courses paired with wines that include Scaia Corvina and Annalisa Moscato. The courses planned were arugula salad, stuffed artichokes, eggplant sorrentino, seafood risotto and limoncello cake.
He said the wine dinner came about to allow customers to try some wines that are delicious but aren’t household names.
Of the reception Rosalie’s has gotten in Wilmington so far, Cervini said, “It’s incredible. We already made friends. Everyone who comes in is a friend. We’re very lucky, very blessed.”