Restaurateur Frankie Salese Jr. brought his family from Long Island to Vermont in 1991 to give his children a better life. He says he'd put Junior's, his Colchester restaurant, up against any Italian restaurant anywhere.

Raising Dough

With a family history steeped in pots of luscious sauce, Frankie Salese Jr. carries on an Italian tradition

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

John Blanchard, one of the owners of the Lighting House in Shelburne, met Frankie Salese Jr. in 1991 not long after he came up here from Long Island. "He was the chef at Bambino's, the best sports bar there ever was. I had his pizza there; it wasn't on the menu, he just offered it one time. I loved it and said, 'If you ever want to do anything with it, let me know.'"

Salese soon opened a pizzeria in Colchester "a hole in the wall," says Blanchard, who drove there often from Shelburne "just to get his food." Over the years, Blanchard says, he did help fund "bits and pieces," including a second restaurant, Marco's, in South Burlington, which Salese eventually sold.

Mike Baker, the owner and vice president of Baker Distributing in Colchester, has been selling Salese wine and beer since he opened his first restaurant. "He's a smart business person; he knows what people want," Baker says. "At Junior's, there's great food, great wine, great people and lots of garlic."

"He's unique to the world. That guy is the poster child for Ritalin," says Blanchard with a chuckle. "He's so 'New Yorkish' you can't help but love the guy. I guess he is what you see; there are no pretenses to Frank."

Salese is the owner of Junior's Italian Restaurant and The Bakery at Junior's in Colchester. He appears to be everything his friends have said: a savvy businessman; a rapid-fire talker; a guy with a big heart; and such a joy to interview, we decided to share it in his own words.

Business People: How did you come to the restaurant business?

Frankie Salese Jr.: I come from an Italian family in the Bronx, N.Y. I'm the oldest of six kids. We weren't that wealthy.

We lived in an old Italian neighborhood, so I was always brought up around food authentic Italian. My great-grandmother they were always cooking for us. Every Sunday, the sauce was on very old-school Italian. They didn't even speak English, my grandparents. Came from Naples, Italy, so that's where my recipes come from, all passed down from generations.

My father worked three jobs in the Bronx, then ended up buying a pizzeria on Long Island in 1968, and life started becoming good. I was 8 years old when we moved out to Long Island from the Bronx. I was actually a major part of my father's restaurant by the time I was 13.

BP: When did you open your first place?

FS: I've owned restaurants since I was 19 years old. The first was St. Mark's Pizza on St. Marks and 3rd. I was right out of high school. My family gave me a choice to go to college or stick with the family business, and I chose the restaurant business.

The only way I was able to open my own place was I had a motorcycle accident a hit and run from a drunk driver. The cops followed his radiator leak into his driveway. Thank God I'm alive! At 55 miles an hour, he made a sharp left-hand turn right in front of me. My life passed in front of me. The next morning, I was in the hospital bed, the lawyer walks in and says, 'OK, we're going to be suing.'

A 19-year-old kid coming into all that money! And I invested it to open my first restaurant.

About three years ago, a chef with an interest in baking persuaded Salese to open a bakery in the lower level. Sue Igler is the pastry chef.

BP: That opened in 1982 a pretty big day for another reason, too.

FS: My son Franco was born on grand opening day of the first Junior's: Sept. 14, 1982. His mother was working on the floor that day. She was my high school sweetheart. We had two more kids after that.

BP: Things were going pretty well. What brought you to Vermont?

FS: We came up here basically for a better life for my kids. The children were 6, 7 and 8, and we wanted to get them out of the city.

BP: By 1992, you had opened Junior's in Colchester.

FS: At first, it was just a little mama and papa; just a little pizzeria. By 1993, we had opened the dining room upstairs, because we didn't have enough room in the little pizzeria.

BP: There were some difficulties in your marriage that led to a divorce, and you lost the restaurant to your wife and returned to Long Island. When did you buy it back?

FS: Six years ago. I had gone back home to Long Island, working at my brother's restaurant. At age 38, I lived with my parents! I got a call from my lawyer that she was going to put it up for sale, and there was a clause in the divorce that if I wanted it back, I could buy it, so I got it back. I came back here with $700 in my pocket. We had three employees at that time; now we have 45 employees and are just a dynamo. Eight to 10 full-timers.

BP: And you're remarried?

FS: My present wife, Laurie. I met her down on Long Island. She was an RN down at Stony Brook University. She's an asset in the business, because she's very personable, good with the customers. We didn't need her nursing paycheck, just her personality.

The Junior's crew stops for a moment in the kitchen. From left: Laurie Salese, Frankie's wife; Brian Round, kitchen manager; Frankie Salese, Salvatore Salese, chef; Gina Marie Salese, front counter; Franco Salese, pizzeria manager; Penny Gadwah, dining room and banquet manager; Sue Igler, pastry chef.

BP: Do your children work in the restaurant, too?

FS: These kids have been in the kitchen since they were babies. Franco works the front-of-the-house pizzeria, along with Priscilla Steeneck. They manage the pizzeria and takeout side of the operations. It's fast-paced; they're young and do a great job.

Then there's Gina Marie and Salvatore. Salvatore is one of my great chefs in the kitchen. He's a natural; does an unbelievable job. Gina Marie works at the front counter. She's going to Champlain College, wants to pursue a career in something else fashion, PR, business. She's still young.

BP: You opened a bakery three years ago. How did that come about?

FS: I had a chef working with me, and he was interested in baking, so he kind of got me rolling. I have no experience with baking at all. We had the basement area that we were renting out to a gun shop, and I said, 'Oh, yeah, we should utilize that.'

It's become a big, big success. That person is gone now, and we've hired Sue Igler as pastry chef, and she's just wonderful; and Jesse Lauer, who does a great job with the wedding cakes. He is an artist, that guy. Any specialty stuff goes on to his bench.

My banquet manager and dining manager, Penny Gadwah, she's been with me ever since the dining room opened 11 years ago. She's a great asset to the business. Then my kitchen manager right now is Brian Round, who has tons of culinary experience.

I come in every morning and basically run the operations: meet with managers every day. I still cook one night a week on Friday night because I enjoy it so much. It's not as easy as it looks, because it's a crazy place. I'm here hands-on every day, seven days a week. It's like a farm: You can't miss a day, because the cows need milking.

BP: Do you consider yourself a good restaurateur?

FS: I think I'm the best. I love it. I've been doing it my whole life, and I love people. My employees I treat like gold. That's the key, to keep your people happy; everything else is just the basics.

One thing about this restaurant, if you come in and look at the faces, a lot of restaurateurs come here: a lot of the chefs from NECI come here from up at the school. We know we are the best Italian in the state. I would put ours up against any Italian in Boston, anywhere. I've had people come back from Italy, and this would be the first restaurant they stop at!

BP: What do you do for play?

FS: I love snowboarding. I ride a Harley-Davidson in the summer. I do motorcycle rallies. I love Texas Hold 'Em, that's my new passion. I've been doing a lot of tournaments lately. I'm gettin' good. Plus, I work out. I did a bodybuilding show back in '97, took first place in it, at the Flynn. I still work out, but I haven't done a show since. Probably will do one again someday.

BP: You seem to do a lot of community service.

FS: We work with a lot of charities. I have a list: the King Street Youth Center, Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, the Food Shelf last year, we donated close to 8,000 pounds of food to them ... Red Cross we do all the pizzas for them every day, so when you give blood, you eat our pizza and all the local stuff: Colchester High School, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts ... Ronald McDonald House, Visiting Nurses ... definitely Vermont Dismas House, the Williams House for mentally challenged boys and we employ a couple of them as well.

Life is too short. You have to give. When you give to the community, you get back tenfold.

BP: It sounds like you're still having fun.

FS: Oh, yeah! I love it, I love it. Our catering business is booming. Everything is great. Life is good!

Originally published in February 2005 Business People-Vermont