Restaurateur creates family atmosphere that has kept guests coming back for 36 years

A popular adage advises, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” With 36 years under his belt and no intention of stopping anytime soon, restaurateur Aldo Cascio is the embodiment of this statement.

“People say, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I don’t want to retire,” Cascio says. “This is my life.”

One need only spend a little time with the Sicilian-born culinarian to see what he means. Aldo’s Restaurant in Wyckoff—which Cascio owns along with its annex, Pane e Vino {640 Wyckoff Avenue, Wyckoff; 201.891.2618;}; as well as the Brick House, {179 Godwin Avenue, Wyckoff; 201.848.1211;} a borough institution for steaks and seafood—is his second home, and it shows.

Employees approach Cascio with reverence, not just the obligatory respect often shown to a boss. One waiter stops by to present him with a vitamin elixir, displaying the kind of concern one would see between a father and son.

“He’s a very good man,” says Manuel De Los Santos, who has been manning Aldo’s kitchen as a cook for 27 years.

Cascio acknowledges that such loyalty tends to be rare in the restaurant business, where employees typically turn over almost as often as the tables. His genuine kindness, however, is just as rare, ensuring staff see themselves as part of a close-knit team rather than simply a cog in the machine.

“I don’t think I could live with that every day,” Cascio says.

It probably doesn’t hurt that, after 15 years of working every day and night in the kitchen, Cascio personally trained each of those who would carry the torch to master his recipes.

“I have guys that have been here for 35 years. Out of seven cooks, four have been here over 20 years—two, more than 30 years.”

Aldo Cascio and Nestor Betancourth

Nestor Betancourth—the self-described “pizza guy” who mans the oven at Pane e Vino—is one of the two, having worked for Cascio for 32 years.

“This man here, I feel like I grew up with him,” says Betancourth, adding that Cascio has often been like a father to him over the years. “Here, it’s like a family thing—owners with employees, and employees with customers.”

Walking through the expansive restaurant with Aldo on a recent afternoon provides evidence for Betancourth’s glowing testimony. The convivial repartee with each patron passed made it obvious why customers have kept coming back for close to four decades.

“I could come here every night and I would know 80 percent of my customers,” boasts Cascio, adding that he has watched generations unfold over time in Aldo’s dining rooms. At the same time, he says, newcomers to the restaurant are welcomed with as much warmth and enthusiasm as those who have been dining there for years.

Such relationships are important to Cascio, he says. And like everything for him, they are fueled by passion.

“It started with the food, but then it transferred to the people,” explains Cascio, adding that in the beginning, he found great pleasure in stepping out of the kitchen to be greeted by the looks of satisfaction and joy on his customers’ faces. “The passion grows with the response you get from people and how receptive people are.”

And they’ve been receptive from the very beginning.

Starting back in 1983 in a cozy, 13-table spot on Franklin Avenue just around the corner from the current location, Cascio first partnered with his brother Dominic. There, he began honing some of the skills passed on by his father, also a chef, with whom he emigrated from Italy at 15 years old.

Cascio met his wife, Jill, the same year he opened Aldo’s. The two began building a life in the quaint, well-heeled community. “I live here; my kids went to school here. It’s been wonderful,” Cascio says, adding, “I love Wyckoff.”

Dominic had previously worked at New York’s Helmsley Palace (now Lotte New York Palace), and many of his famous friends frequented the restaurant, his brother recalls. On any given night, the likes of Danny Aiello, Janet Jackson or Liz Smith might be seen enjoying a meal at the former Aldo’s location. These days, professional athletes are a common sight, according to Cascio.

Cascio laughed as he harkened back to those times and what served as a waiting room for diners. “I used to have a school bus,” he said, adding that it was often packed with hungry patrons anticipating their meals on busy nights. The restaurant was later expanded to accommodate its popularity, as well as to open Pane e Vino.

A mere two years later in 1998, a fire tore through the building, ravaging everything and leaving Aldo thinking his dreams were up in smoke. As he stood outside helplessly looking at the destruction the blaze had wrought, people from the community stopped by to offer words of kindness and support.

Adding to the devastation was that authorities determined the fire was caused by arson. Hearing this not only broke Cascio’s heart, but also puzzled him, as he could not figure out who would wish him ill. Hundreds of cards bearing words of encouragement poured in during the weeks that followed, eventually banishing any thoughts of throwing in the towel.

“The support made me want to rebuild,” says Cascio.

A few years later, Cascio would pay it forward. When the 9/11 terrorist attacks rocked the world, he was personally affected by the deaths of a neighbor and a couple of friends. Upon hearing that food was being served for aid workers at Pier 40, he also wanted to help. Not satisfied to simply bring trays of food that would grow cold throughout the day, Cascio obtained the necessary permit to bring a stove and the other needed equipment into Manhattan to serve home-cooked Sunday meals to those at Ground Zero for a few months after the tragedy.

“They were very happy to have that,” he recalls.

Cascio also takes every opportunity he can to help out on the local level, as well. “I love giving back to the community.”

Some might say he has given quite enough through the mere existence of his restaurants. Its second location continues to offer Italian classics while keeping up with culinary trends, and most importantly, pleasing the palates of all those who enter.

“We try to cover a little bit of everything … but the basics are always what we pride ourselves on,” Cascio says, adding that all the pastas—which include homemade, whole wheat and gluten-free selections—are a big hit. Also popular are house specialties like Veal Rollatine, rolled and stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella and garlic, then sauteed with mushrooms and onions in white wine sauce; Shrimp alla Giovanni, breaded and topped with sauteed chopped tomato and garlic, served in a lemon white wine sauce, covered in melted Swiss cheese over a bed of linguine; or Filet Mignon Arrabiato, served in wine sauce with mushrooms, onions and hot cherry peppers. Chicken alla Aldo, composed of boneless chicken breasts accompanied by mushrooms and onions in a garlic, butter and lemon sauce, pays homage to the man himself.

The dishes emerging from Aldo’s kitchen are ever-evolving as he and his chefs flex their gastronomic chops. “That’s my best time, when I’m in the kitchen doing what I do,” Cascio says.

Three separate dining rooms, distinct in their decor, add coziness and character to the 120-seat space at Aldo’s. In warmer weather, the outdoor patio provides an al fresco experience. And with Pane e Vino only a few steps away, diners who prefer wine with their dinner can order a bottle from its retail offerings.

There, at a bar centered under a vibrant ceiling mural, patrons can watch wood-fired pizzas being prepared across the room while sipping wines from a diverse, curated list whose bottles are displayed throughout the space. Light fare, including specials like lasagna and grilled octopus, are also available, as is the entire menu from Aldo’s.

“We have a steady clientele,” says Cascio of the wine bar.

Downstairs, a wine room holds reserve stock and two private party rooms play host to a variety of events, such as birthday parties and showers, accommodating up to 60 guests. Aldo’s also offers offsite catering.

Within the grandeur of an 1851 Greek Revival farmhouse, the Brick House has established itself as a distinctive dining destination and event venue. Its formal main dining room and bar, along with multiple event rooms, invite guests to a sumptuous experience. On the lower level, the Cigar Bar exudes an air of comfortable exclusivity, where one can light up a selection from the extensive cigar menu and enjoy a drink while catching a game on a big screen TV, or even enjoy a quiet bite.

Also in town, Brick House Cigar Shop {85 Crescent Avenue, Wyckoff; 201.485.8488} further fulfills smoker’s needs, with a well-stocked humidor and friendly vibe.

If his successful endeavors are any proof, Cascio’s amore for all he does has served him well over the decades.

“When you do something with passion, somehow people are receptive to that,” he says. “If you combine passion with good-quality food, good prices and good service, you have the opportunity to have success.”

By Jessica D’Amico