North Bergen top chef reinvents local family restaurant at Café Per Tutti

Chef Michael Licata strives to make a name for himself and maintain his family legacy

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Chef Michael of Cafe Per Tutti in North Bergen
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A young Chef Michael Licata poses for a picture at La Mia Cantina.
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The Avocado Salad available at Cafe Per Tutti in North Bergen.
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The Cafe Salmon, available at the dining room of Cafe Per Tutti on Bergenline Ave.
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Chef Michael of Cafe Per Tutti in North Bergen
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A young Chef Michael Licata poses for a picture at La Mia Cantina.
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The Avocado Salad available at Cafe Per Tutti in North Bergen.
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The Cafe Salmon, available at the dining room of Cafe Per Tutti on Bergenline Ave.
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Chef Michael Licata, a young top chef based out of North Bergen, is raising the bar for cuisine on Bergenline Avenue. After cooking in high-end establishments from Hawaii to New York City, Chef Michael has made his way back home to New Jersey.

Michael attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America where he refined his techniques and elevated his skills. After graduation, he moved on to Michelin Star restaurants and other fine-dining establishments around the world.

Among the restaurants where Michael has worked are Four Seasons-Spago on Maui, the Ritz Carlton-Merriman on Maui, and Oceana in New York City.

Now he has come home to his parents’ restaurant, Café Per Tutti, in North Bergen, formerly La Mia Cantina.

At 7709 Bergenline Ave., Café Per Tutti is a farm-to-table restaurant that prides itself on using the freshest ingredients from local farms and purveyors. Chef Michael is picking up where his grandparents left off.

“What really inspired me to start cooking food was my family, my grandfather,” Michael said. “As a little boy, I didn’t really have a father in my life, so my grandfather would step into that role as a father figure.”

Michael recalled that watching his grandfather, Michael Strippoli, run restaurants and work with food mesmerized and inspired him.

A young Chef Michael Licata poses for a picture at La Mia Cantina.

At age 8, he recalls making pasta with Strippoli in the basement of La Mia Cantina restaurant. However, it wasn’t always clear to him that making food would be in his future.

“At first, I didn’t want to go into the culinary field,” Michael said. “I went to school for marine biology. It wasn’t until I was around 21 or 22 that my grandfather was diagnosed with Amyloidosis, a disease that affects people of Mediterranean descent.”

Michael said that his grandfather was given three months to live. When Michael came home from college, his grandfather asked him to take over the family business.

“I came back to New Jersey, and he told me he wanted me to take over the family business and carry on the legacy that is my grandpa’s story,” Michael said. “So I dropped out of the University of Tampa and put myself in the Culinary Institute of America.”

And the rest is history.

Michael’s mother, Catherine Licata, a co-owner and manager of Café Per Tutti, said it was the long history of La Mia Cantina that makes it different from other eateries.

Carrying on the legacy

“This restaurant is truly special because of its history,” Catherine said. “You see, my parents had a successful business here for many years.”

Three generations of restauranteurs, including Chef Michael Licata, Catherine Licata, Michael Strippoli, and Mary Strippoli.

Before it was known as Café Per Tutti, the family owned and operated La Mia Cantina for almost 50 years.

“La Mia Cantina, in the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s was a favorite spot, and to this day, North Bergen residents remember this establishment for its warmth, innovation, and most importantly … its great food and customer service,” Catherine said.

Catherine said that her parents, Michael Strippoli, 95, and Mary, 89, are “super proud” of their grandson. Still active in their business, the Strippolis fondly leave Café Per Tutti in Chef Michael’s hands as he continues the legacy that was La Mia Cantina.

The idea for Café Per Tutti came naturally, according to Catherine. The eatery was born from a desire to bring back “a slice of heaven” to North Bergen.

However, Catherine said not everyone was on board at first. Apparently people who saw the restaurant in the early stages of renovation were doubtful.

“Doubters were saying that Bergenline is not ready for high-level cuisine,” Catherine recalled. “My son and I said that good, clean food translates for everyone, hence the name Café for Everyone!”

Catherine laments how people forget that Bergenline Avenue is reportedly the largest stretch of retail in the country. She remembered how Bergenline was considered the 5th Avenue of Hudson County, a more than appropriate area for a fine dining establishment.

“We want to provide local residents with an opportunity to dine at a beautiful establishment that offers something more than the typical fare,” Catherine said. “North Bergen now has a young top chef who is excited to prepare unique and high-end dishes just for them. People can now stay local and avoid New York City traffic and prices.”

The Avocado Salad available at Café Per Tutti in North Bergen.

Michael said he is largely inspired by the Hawaiian Polynesian food culture. He said the food culture on Maui, and its respect for the land that the crops grow on, helped him understand what true farm- to-table food service is.

Café Per Tutti embodies the idea of food transparency and ethics, said Michael. His menu is based on non-GMO clean ingredients, part of the atmosphere he absorbed in Maui. The young chef hopes to bring the knowledge he learned in Hawaii to the East Coast.

Farm-to-table transparency measures ensure that customers can see exactly which farm their ingredients come from in each dish at the restaurant.

Farm to table

Michael said he is vigilant about clean food and transparency. Most of his ingredients are non-GMOs purveyed from local farms. Café Per Tutti sources its chicken from well-known Goffle Farm.

In 2020, Michael said Café Per Tutti will share that information with their guests. Customers will know exactly where the ingredients that are used in the dishes are grown.

Michael pointed to his broad flavor palate and his myriad experiences as the key to infusing interesting flavors and combinations into his dishes.

Catherine recalled Chef Michael’s process of formulating a new dish, noting how fun it is to watch his brain work.

The Cafe Salmon, available at the dining room of Café Per Tutti on Bergenline Ave.

“He recently brought a certain fish into the restaurant,” Catherine said. “Once he did, he went outside on Bergenline and walked for 20 minutes or so. Once he returned, he had the details of that dish mapped out and proceeded to make the dish. The seasonal dish was both delicious and beautiful.”

Catherine said Café Per Tutti is pleased to announce a very exciting change coming in 2020.

“We are moving into Café Per Tutti 2.0 by introducing a select vineyard to our menu,” she said. “Perfect wine pairings will enhance our beautiful dishes and your dining experience.”

That’s not the only thing change. Café Per Tutti is partnering with nonprofit organization Rose 2 Hope Foundation to offer cooking classes for youth and young adults of all backgrounds looking to find their purpose in life.

Hillary Vargas, founder and president of Rose 2 Hope, says that the foundation has found a valuable mentor in Chef Michael. She once left North Bergen, too, only to return to serve her hometown.

The dining room at Café Per Tutti in North Bergen.

“I believe in staying true to ethics and morals, and I believe that Cathy and Michael are in sync to what we believe in,” Vargas said. “Michael shared his story, and I asked him to be a mentor to my guys, because I have young men who want to be cooks. Culturally, they grew up with families that told them that men can’t cook or be photographers.”

Rose 2 Hope will open its first headquarters in North Bergen, directly above Café Per Tutti.

Café Per Tutti is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. for lunch. The dining room closes at 3 p.m. for dinner prep, reopening for dinner from 5 until 10 p.m.

Sunday Brunch is from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

The café part of Café Per Tutti remains open for coffee and pastries among other tasty treats from 11 a.m. until close.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Dan Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.