The first Dominican restaurant in the borough has been a labor of love for husband and wife team Leo Driver and Ingrid Ventura.
By Matt Skoufalos | September 29, 2023
The idea took hold almost a decade ago, back when Leo Driver and Ingrid Ventura decided they needed a change of pace from life in the Bronx.
Driver, who’s worked in the film and television industry for nearly a quarter-century, had invested in some real estate in South Jersey.
Ventura, who had considered work in nursing and cosmetology, was still trying to settle on a career.
“She likes to cook, and one day I was paying attention to her at the stove, and she looked like an orchestra conductor,” Driver said.
“She’d cooked for a bunch of other restaurants in New York, so we said, ‘Let’s just go to South Jersey, where we really want to be.’”
They decided to make the jump, and then spent years of painstaking work overhauling the former dance studio at 107 West Merchant Street, a building that had been in disrepair for years, into a state-of-the-art restaurant and kitchen.
Now the restaurant is ready to launch, its owners having overcome the labor and supply shortages of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and then the entertainment industry shutdown that kept Driver sidelined for another six months.
“We designed this restaurant to be a staple in the neighborhood for a long time,” he said. “We modified, upgraded, or repaired every square inch of the property.”
“One of the reasons it took so long was because we really wanted to bring an experience of going to a restaurant that we haven’t encountered often,” Driver said. “We weren’t rushing to open so we could be sure that we can provide the experience that we’re looking for, and that we enjoy when we find it.
The layout of the dining room is designed to feel “compact and personal,” Driver said, with acoustic baffling and an audiophile’s sound system that will allow guests to hear atmospheric music and still carry on an intimate conversation.
Custom tables, chairs, and benches complete the look of a fine dining establishment that is still comfortable enough to bring in families for a weeknight meal.
“We want you to feel like this is the place to go have a good time, and we want to fill your belly,” Driver said.
The menu at Café Nitido, a blend of modern and traditional Dominican recipes, is based on Ventura’s home cooking.
Every dish had to pass muster with the family before she considered it ready to serve.
“This restaurant is our baby,” Ventura said, “everything here is made with passion.
“I wanted to give people what I enjoy to eat so that they can have the experience, too.”
House specialties include soups and stews built around slow-cooked meats — chicken, fish, beef, goat, and oxtail — layered with flavors drawn from fresh herbs and vegetables, and served over rice and beans.
A la carte dishes feature choice cuts of meat, like lamb and pork chops, bone-in ribeye and skirt steaks; fried, sautéed, and rotisserie chicken; and red snapper and salmon.
The sandwich menu includes a flank steak cheesesteak, turkey Cuban, and the Dominican burger, served with grilled red onion, tomato, and lightly sautéed cabbage. Dominican favorites like los tres golpes — smashed plantains, fried eggs, and salami and cheese — and morir soñando, a mixture of fresh orange juice, evaporated milk, and sugar, also make an appearance, as do slushies made from squeezed citrus.
Appetizers range from the familiar — grilled chicken wings, shrimp skewers, and fried calamari — to specialties like quipe, an island twist on kibbeh, the deep-fried Lebanese bulgur-wheat-and-ground-beef bites.
Ventura’s empanadas are baked, not fried; her nachos are topped with plantains, flank steak, pickled onions, and pico de gallo. Everything is made from scratch in-house, including her desserts: tres leches cake, crème brulee, apple pie tarts, and banana bread with pecans, walnuts, and vanilla ice cream.
She also stressed that Nitido isn’t just for fans of Dominican food. The menu is broadly varied, and offers something for every palate.
“We welcome everybody,” Ventura said. “We want to make people feel like they get what they paid for, and get a good experience.”
For Driver, opening the doors to the cafe means paying off a bet to himself on the potential of the Audubon business district.
“I’m always in different locations,” he said. “I get to see all kinds of people in different neighborhoods, and I always thought that there was a ton of potential in Merchant Street.
“Audubon is nicely situated in this area,” Driver said. “It’s surrounded by a lot of other towns, and it’s got proximity to Philadelphia.
“To me, this was the best place ever to be.”
The owners are targeting a soft opening by October 21 during the Audubon Third Friday celebration. The restaurant will open with a limited menu for takeout only, ramping up to dine-in service.
Café Nitido is located at 107 West Merchant Street in Audubon, serving lunch and dinner seven days a week. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, and until 10 p.m. on weekends. Delivery options include DoorDash and GrubHub. For more information, call 856-547-0001 or 856-547-0317.
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