Due Gemelli Restaurant, located at 6023 Park Ave. in West New York, is an Italian restaurant with a difference. Owners Ivan Cardenas and Javier Fuentes-Better, best friends since the early 1970s, possess a wealth of experience in food preparation and restaurant management, and they tweak the menu to add their own flavor to the mix.
With a variety of homemade pastas and unique desserts, Due Gemelli serves both popular favorites and distinctive special offerings, including some based on Cardenas’ mother’s recipes.
“I consider my mother the best cook in the world,” Cardenas said. A native of Colombia, he grew up in a busy household where his mom cooked large meals for her banker husband and his business colleagues. Helping around the kitchen, the young Cardenas gained an appreciation for cooking and set his sights high.
“I wanted to have a big kitchen, so I went to school for hotel management,” said Cardenas. “It was the only thing that was close to food and beverage in Colombia.” Following up the five-year degree with additional cooking courses, he entered the job market and was snatched up by a surprising employer.
“I was hired by Exxon, which was taking over a lot of oil camps and coal operations in Colombia, so they hired the largest catering company in the world, Abela Corporation. They do all the oil companies, they provide all the food for all these camps. So I was sent to this camp with 10,000 people--30,000 meals a day. I started training cooks in hygiene, safety, how to preserve food, all these things, and I started learning a lot from this company. It was top of the line food. They had this little camp by the beach for VIPs, all the senators came, the president of Colombia used to come there. And the big shots from Exxon. So I was in charge of that for about two years, all the banquets, everything.”
“I consider my mother the best cook in the world,” –Ivan Cardenas
Instead Cardenas chose to forge a new path by establishing a successful cleaning company before eventually surrendering to the lure of food. Together, in 2012, the two old friends began searching for a location, initially planning to open a Colombian eatery before coming across Due Gemelli, an Italian restaurant in West New York.
“My mother is half Italian, half Dutch,” said Fuentes-Better, a computer engineer and teacher by trade. “My uncle had an Italian restaurant in Colombia. I loved it.” So they revised their plan and bought the restaurant, keeping the name and reopening for business in September of 2013.
“Due Gemelli means the two twins,” according to Cardenas. “It refers to the two angels in the Sistine Chapel. They’re part of our logo.” It could also refer to the two owners, who split the responsibilities, with Fuentes-Better handling the administration and Cardenas the operations, one of them opening the restaurant each day and the other closing.
Keeping the same chef and menu as the previous incarnation, they tested the waters to determine what was popular. “Over three months we saw what people liked. It’s all pasta. People were calling and asking for classic dishes like spaghetti and meatballs. It’s not on the menu. Stuffed shells, it’s not on the menu. Manicotti, it’s not on the menu. So we added all those items. We gave them what they wanted. I thought swordfish was very popular around here. It’s not. They asked for flounder, they asked for tilapia. So we put them on the menu—Italian style.”
Our meal began with warm rolls delivered from a bakery in Brooklyn, served with chilled herb butter and spiced olive oil for a delicious start.
Cardenas takes pride in offering different “theme” specials every day. On the day we visited, the theme was “honoring the three,” meaning each special revolved in some way around the number three.
From the antipasti menu we selected fried calamari with three sauces. While fried calamari is available daily and is popular with customers, this variant offered an additional option along with the regular two sauces.
The calamari was fried tender, seasoned with a hint of spice, served light and airy rather than overly chewy or crunchy. Expertly prepared, it offered a delicate texture that whetted the appetite for the meal to come.
Next up were bowls of pasta e fagioli. The tasty tomato broth was brimming with pasta, beans, and meat, making it practically a meal unto itself. It was easy to see why the delicious “zuppa” is a lunchtime favorite. A warm bowl would certainly appeal on a cold winter day.
The menu included a wide selection of chicken, veal, seafood, and pasta, featuring all the familiar Italian favorites. Our first main course selection was three mushroom Chicken Marsala from the daily specials menu. The standard menu includes a version of Chicken Marsala with a delightful sauce. To create an “honoring the three” special, Due Gemelli added superb shiitake, Portobello, and oyster mushrooms for a mouth-watering treat.
For our second main course we opted for another special: the Gemelli Trio, listed as “the perfect Italian combination.” The first item of the trio was chicken parmigiana, a substantial portion smothered in flavorful sauce and lightly coated in cheese. Second was an outstanding Fettuccini Alfredo made with homemade pasta and cooked al dente, definitely one of the highlights of our meal, especially with fresh grated cheese and ground pepper. Rounding out the Gemelli Trio was a wonderfully hearty meat lasagna.
Portions were more than generous for both entrees, making sharing practically mandatory.
For dessert we sampled a brand new Due Gemelli specialty, Italian three-cheese custard made with mascarpone, ricotta, and cream cheese. The recipe, from Cardenas’ mom, is simply scrumptious, along the lines of a more robust flan with a rich mix of flavors. We highly recommend it.
Other dessert options included tartufo, cannoli, or homemade tiramisu.
The meal was capped by a steaming cup of coffee made from a unique blend of beans from Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Eat in or take out
Due Gemelli is open every day except Monday. Doors open at 11 a.m. except on Sunday at 2 p.m., and they offer a full lunch menu. At press time they were waiting for revised menus to arrive, and the website (www.duegemelli.us) was in the process of being updated to reflect the new offerings.
Deliveries are popular—especially on cold winter days—and the dining room is available for parties or events. Parking is free in the adjoining private lot. For more information call (201) 766-5700. Orders can also be faxed to (201) 766-5703.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.