“I love what I do, I love being here,” says Aurelio Cardoso, co-owner of the Brick Oven in Westfield. It is 11:30 a.m. and shadows from the flames in the restaurant’s eponymous oven already flicker against the wall. Lunch service will start soon, and it will take some time for the oven to reach its target — 600 degrees.
Cardoso’s partners are the Vasfailo family, who opened the restaurant in 1993. The family suffered a terrible loss in April 2010, when Frank Vasfailo III died at age 38 after his car ran off the road on the Garden State Parkway. He had just become a father to newborn Frank Vasfailo IV. “It was very tragic; you don’t expect a 38 year old to die,” says Cardoso. He remembers the “tremendous outpouring of support from the community. There was a 2 1/2-hour line to get into the wake on a rainy, cold night.”
Family and community are two words that come up a lot in conversation with Cardoso. He describes the Brick Oven as run by a family that also views its staff and customers as family. “We’re part of the community. We’ve seen the kids grow up, go to college,” he says. “The best thing I can think of is that people who come here say ‘We feel like we’re at home’”
If you make your own mozzarella at home, that is. Brick Oven chefs also make their own sausage for one of Cardoso’s favorite dishes, rigatoni with sausage bolognese, a riff on a the common meat sauce made with ground beef. Apparently, the dish should come with a disclaimer: It’s one of those things that “you crave” if you don’t eat it regularly, he warns.
The popular suprema di pollo sandwich: grilled chicken, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and arugula on hard Italian bread. And the pork braciole: “Anybody who has it says, ‘It’s like my grandmother used to make,’” says Cardoso. The pork is stuffed with pecorino cheese and Italian spices and stewed in filetto di pomodoro sauce.
It’s just about noon now, and a couple, the first customers of the day, walk through the door. Under the portrait of the deceased Frank Vasfailo III, they say hello to his father, Frank Jr., and then seat themselves. “That’s their table,” Cardoso says, “They come almost every day. Most of our business is repeat business,” he adds. “The consistency is there. The person who was making your dish 18 years ago is still making it.”
Cardoso says he and the Vasfailo family have talked about opening a second Brick Oven, but their desire to maintain the quality they are known for has made them circumspect. “Maybe one day we can do another. We need a town like this, the right time, the right spot,” says Cardoso.
Of Westfield, he says, “This is a great town. We have outside dining in the summertime, and music on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Tuesdays in the summer are Westfield’s jazz nights, with musicians set up on different corners. It’s amazing how many people come to town just for that. It brings in a lot of business.”
Not that the Brick Oven needs much help; Cardoso says the average wait time for a table on Friday and Saturday nights between 7 and 8 can reach 30 minutes. When they hear they’ll have to wait, people will say to Cardoso, “But I’m a regular here!” And he laughs, “Everybody’s a regular here!”