Tutto in famiglia
Mouthwatering signature dish Prince Edward Island Mussels is sautéed in either marinara, a spicy fra diavolo or a garlic white wine sauce over fresh linguine. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO
Johnny D’s owners credit their bistro and market’s popularity to great customer service, strong Italian parentage and delicious food
BY JULIE TARASOVIC
When Johnny D’s Market & Bistro opened for business five years ago, owners Nina and Mario Amelio knew they had a unique twist on their concept of an authentic Italian restaurant.
The siblings had been working in the restaurant business their whole lives, thanks to their large family who has owned and operated successful and popular restaurants in Vero Beach since the early 1970s.
“My family has been in the business since the time of the First World War, beginning with restaurants in Naples, Italy,” Nina said. “By 1966, the Amelio family immigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey.”
It was a real family affair, with brothers and sisters and their children all opening up restaurants. “It’s a lot of hard work and long hours,” Mario said. “But everyone embraced the establishments with passion.”
The whole Amelio clan decided to give Florida a try and moved down to the Vero area in the early 1970s, opening up restaurants in Brevard and Indian River counties.
“We learned everything about the business working with my father, Joseph (Peppy) Amelio, who opened Pomodoro in Vero Beach in 1995,” Nina said. “The restaurant and my father are still going as strong as ever.”
IT’S A FAMILY BUSINESS
Their uncle and cousin also own Scampi Grill and their aunt used to own Bella Napoli in Vero, which is closed. A host of other restaurants were started by the Amelio family, including Pizza Queen which was the first, Carlucci’s, the Italian Grill and others in the Palm Bay-Melbourne area.
“We are such a close-knit family so we never felt any competition with each other,” Mario said. “We have customers that frequent all of the Amelio restaurants. It’s a testament to how hard we all work and how amazing all of our restaurants are doing.”
So how did Johnny D’s come to fruition?
“We wanted to venture off and do something different, so Mario and my dad came up with the concept of combining a restaurant and a market,” Nina said.
“My dad always wanted to run a market,” Mario said. “My grandparents had a market and a small restaurant in Italy so my dad grew up working alongside his parents and siblings in that type of setting. I finally agreed to his ideas and five years later, I couldn’t be happier and proud of what we have accomplished with Johnny D’s.”
REBUILT AFTER STORMS
Named after their cousin, John DeChellis, the bright, spacious contemporary building at 1409 South A1A in Vero Beach was rebuilt after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne and designed by Mario. Prior to the 2004 storms, the site was also home to several other establishments including Carlucci’s Market, The Black Pearl, Nino’s Restaurant and a coffee shop.
“We are uniquely different than other Italian restaurants in that there are multiple businesses under one roof that all sustain their own little areas,” Mario said. “There is the full-service dining for lunch and dinner, a pizza oven, deli, and retail market.
“We have a very strong delivery service for takeout as well, with a separate menu for that,” he said. “Just the other night, we delivered 99 pizzas between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. We host about 100 customers a day just for dinner. And this does not include the lunch crowd, deli, and between 20-25 dinners to go each night.”
It’s taken long hours and days of hard work to get Johnny D’s to where it is today. “Every year for five years, our business has consistently gone up,” Nina said.
LEARNED FROM THEIR FATHER
Nina runs the business side of Johnny D’s, which she learned from her father. Mario is the executive chef who also learned everything from his father about cooking, food prep and designing dishes for a menu that is nothing less than the best.
“He is also the fix-it guy too,” Nina said. “Something always needs repairing and Mario can fix almost anything.”
The siblings, in addition to having grown up in the restaurant business, attribute their success to consistency with excellent employees, great customer service, a delicious authentically Italian-Mediterranean menu and using everything local and fresh.
“Fresh is the key to everything. Fish, meats, vegetables, spices — it’s all local and completely fresh every day,” Mario said. “We have even started to do some of our own farming. We bought five acres of land out west of town and we are growing our own tomatoes and basic herbs to start. I go through so many ingredients a day including 7 pounds of fresh basil every day.”
IT’S IN THE PREPARATION
“I don’t have much time to do the cooking and food preparation, but everything is made completely from scratch,” said Nina. “I make a fantastic meatloaf cupcake complete with mashed potatoes for frosting. Our old family recipe for lasagna and our shrimp cocktail are all big sellers in the deli.”
What makes their shrimp so popular is the way Mario prepares it.
“It’s not just your plain old boiled shrimp,” he said. “I use lemon slices, Old Bay seasoning, bay leaves, peppercorns and celery salt. The flavor is amazing.”
A great addition to the menu is a prix-fixe dinner for $16 served every night from 5 to 6 p.m. The locals love this dish.
“Our prices are very reasonable,” Mario said. “My grandfather always told me to never take more than you need. There is no need to overcharge for anything. From our dining to our market items, we are totally fair and are often less expensive than Publix or ABC for fine wines. People appreciate this and they keep coming back.”
This integrity shows in the number of repeat customers they have. “About 80 percent of our business is repeaters,” Nina said. “We have many people that come in three or four times a week and we know them all by name.”
What are their most popular dishes?
“I couldn’t really say,” Mario said. “It’s a very well-rounded menu. Seafood is always popular as well as our meat dishes, baked dishes, and our Zuppa di Pesce. We also sell a ton of fresh rustic Italian bread that I import from up north. People come in every day just for the bread.”
So this next generation of Amelios is continuing the success of its Italian roots with unmatched quality standards and fine cuisine that customers have come to know and expect.
nd after five years of really coming into their own, Nina and Mario are enjoying life outside the restaurant. Their 30 plus employees are all amazing, honest and handpicked. “It allows us to take some days off now and know that Johnny D’s is running smoothly,” Nina said.
“Work hard and love what you do,” Mario said. “And support small local businesses. Otherwise the whole world will be owned by Amazon.”
JOHNNY D’S MARKET & BISTRO
Where: 1409 Highway A1A, Vero Beach
Specialities: Italian cuisine, subs, gourmet pizza
Bistro hours: Lunch - Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner - Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Market hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Delivery: Available 5 p.m.-9 p.m. for orders $15 or more
For more information: Visit johnnydsvero.com or call 234-4181