The Heart of a Restauranteur

A place for food, love and learning

By Sue Baldani

Jimmy Bellas grew up in the restaurant business. “My dad, James, literally came out of World War II and along with his dad and his brother opened a series of diners on Long Island. Later, he had a bustling place called Jimmy’s Backyard.”

As a kid, Jimmy was there washing dishes, cleaning silverware, and bussing tables. He later became a waiter and bartender. “I did it all, and I studied restaurant and hotel management in college, so when I graduated, I ran the restaurant with my dad.” It’s also where he met his wife, Karen Coccari.

Jimmy eventually opened his own Italian restaurant, but after getting married in 1998 and wanting to have a family, he realized he needed to make a change. “The restaurant business is wonderful, but the hours are difficult, especially if you’re serving dinner.”

After switching careers and working in sales for over 20 years, Jimmy found himself missing the restaurant business and would often sit around the family table regaling his wife and sons, Nico and LJ, with nostalgic stories. “I would say maybe someday we’ll open up a little place, and I’ll go back into the restaurant business with my own family this time. One day, Nico just looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you stop talking about it and just do it?’”

And so, they did. They opened Sorriso Kitchen, a charming café in Chatham that serves breakfast, with choices such as omelets, home-made sausage and thick-cut bacon, and lunch, including an award-winning burger, which you can enjoy with a cold beer (it’s a BYOB.) The food is amazingly fresh and much of it, like their produce, honey, chicken, cheeses and syrups, comes from local farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  

Their son LJ, who has special needs, was also the inspiration for opening up the business. They wanted to give him a place to work after graduation.

On Mondays, when the café is closed, they hold classes for other special-needs children to learn restaurant skills. In order to expand this program and encourage other businesses to do it, he and Karen will be starting a foundation.  “We’re so excited!” he says. “We’ll be able to support this type of program or similar programs that exist or even seed and create new programs.

“We really feel like we’re doing what we are meant to be.” Jimmy’s advice to others who are thinking about taking the leap into a new career or going back to a former one:  “Follow your passion, but make sure that the leap you’re taking is one that’s going to continuously provide you with the love of what you’re doing.”

Written for Chatham & Short Hills Lifestyle magazine in New Jersey.

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