Restaurant Gala is a 31-year tradition for Ventnor man

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Restaurateur John Varalli of Ventnor and South Philadelphia will celebrate 31 years at the Atlantic Cape Restaurant Gala on March 13. Restaurateur John Varalli of Ventnor and South Philadelphia will celebrate 31 years at the Atlantic Cape Restaurant Gala on March 13. VENTNOR – In each of the last 31 years, restaurateur John Varalli thought, “They can’t top this.”

But the co-founder of the Atlantic Cape Community College Restaurant Gala and owner of the former Scannicchio’s Restaurant in Atlantic City said the spectacle gets more extravagant every year.

“Every year it outdoes itself. Everything is done with such class,” he said.

This year the gala is celebrating 31 years of “fun raising” to benefit students at Atlantic Cape’s Academy of Culinary Arts, which has been turning out chefs for the area’s hospitality industry. More than $3 million has been raised since the Atlantic Cape Community College Foundation held the first gala in 1983. Along with all the dazzle, glitz and glamour, the event has helped the academy establish friendships that benefit both the students and the restaurant industry.

Save-the-date invitations are sent out three months before the black-tie event, which will be held March 13 at Bally’s Casino Hotel. That signals corporate executives and casino moguls to book tables for their best clients, and socialites to shop for the perfect dress to impress. It’s a night to hobnob with the elite, eat sumptuously and dance the night away in style.

“Seventy-five percent of the people go every year. They see what they get for their money,” Varalli said.

This year, the $225 ticket price will get revelers a ringside seat to “The Greatest Gala on Earth,” which features a vintage carnival atmosphere and a feast provided by 40 of South Jersey’s top restaurants.

Varalli’s vision for the inaugural event was to provide a progressive dining experience that offered brand promotion and financial support for the college’s new culinary program.

“In the first year we had 30 restaurants; now we have 40,” he said.

Over the years, restaurants came and went, but some, like Scannicchio’s, stuck around.

Varalli’s son Christian and his partner Michael Gibson opened the second Scanniccio’s, a BYOB in South Philadelphia, eight years ago. Although the original Scannicchio’s closed more than four years ago, Varalli said he has no plans to abandon the gala. His involvement in several local community organizations allows the Philadelphia-Ventnor resident to keep his feet in Atlantic City.

“We always had a good reputation, so people know our name. The gala brings some of our old Atlantic City customers to Philadelphia and some of our Philly customers to Atlantic City,” he said.

The longest-standing member of the gala’s organizing committee, he keeps busy all year long working with Joe Massaglia of Mama Mia’s Ristorante, inviting restaurant owners to promote their brand, donate food and coordinate signature dishes.

“We go to all the top-class restaurants, have lunch or dinner and get them to participate,” he said.

Scannicchio’s of South Philadelphia will provide a robust Italian dish that includes sweet sausage, escarole, beans and homemade gnocchi.

Sophia Papastamelos of Sofia Restaurant in Margate said she goes all out every year and has done so since she started participating in 2007, the year after she opened. This year she will provide an authentic Mediterranean dish – moussaka in filo roll.

“We love the gala,” her partner Angela Diamantis said. “It’s for a good cause, and it helps us get better. We can see what other restaurants are doing, and it brings us new business,” she said.

Papastamelos said she likes her staffers to present her food in theme-appropriate costumes. This year, they will wear ringleader and lion tamer costumes.

“The year the theme was royalty, our servers wore crowns,” she said.

Varalli said restaurants can spend as much as $1,000 to participate, depending on the products they serve. However, the return on their investment is much greater, especially if it generates even a handful of new, steady customers.

Although the cost of putting on the yearly extravaganza can be as high as $80,000, not counting Bally’s in-kind contributions, college officials say the cost is well worth it considering how much is raised for scholarships.

Last year the event raised $145,000 after expenses, college spokeswoman Stacey Clapp said.

The gala raised only $11,000 in the first year, Varalli said and topped the $1 million mark in 2002. It broke a yearly fundraising record in 2007 with $240,000 raised. Auxiliary events such as the 50-50 raise additional funds for regular education students.

Although celebrity chefs get to showcase their signature dishes, it is the culinary students who shine. They plan the cocktail reception, prepare and butler the hors d’oeuvres, and get to work with chefs who could become their employers.

Varalli said he has hired students to work in his restaurant.

“I had some students work for me for six months or a year before they moved on. I offered them a training ground to work in the casinos,” he said.

Papastamelos said her sous chef Adrianne Armenia is an ACA graduate, and that she would like to have other ACA graduates come on board during the busy summer season.

Each year the gala recognizes a few ardent supporters. This year’s honorees are Anthony Catanoso and Steel Pier Associates, and Pater Slavin, a 1984 ACA graduate and Philadelphia-based performance ice carver.

Slavin, the owner of Fear No Ice, will take the stage during the cocktail reception.

Live music will be provided by Don’t Call Me Francis, the FM Band and Lenny Mitchell, playing in three separate ballrooms. The décor is extravagant, and Gerad’s Florist and Decorators of Pleasantville will provide centerpieces.

An elegant dessert reception prepared by Chef Deborah Pellegrino, also an ACA graudate, completes the evening’s festivities.

Varalli said he is looking forward to seeing some of his old customers at the event.

“Thirty-one years, and it’s still going strong. It’s a beautiful affair,” Varalli said.

For information or to purchase tickets call Torrina Bennett-Michael at 609-463-4672 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Learn more about the foundation and the gala at

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