You may be surprised to learn that Casona, Collingswood's popular Cuban restaurant, is Mark Infantado's very first foray into the culinary business. In this week's column he shares how he got started, how he defines hospitality, and tells us about some of his favorite foods.
Patch: How long have you owned Casona?
Mark Infantado: I bought the building in 2004 off of Dr. Johnson, who was here many years. It was late 2004 when we started the renovation. It took us 18 months, and we opened April 8, 2006.
Collingswood Patch: What is your culinary background?
Infantado: My history with restaurants is that I built many restaurants. I was on the construction side of it. I started out at Casona with a partner, Lawrence Grillo. He's from Philadelphia and he owned two Cuban restaurants in the city at that time.
My wife and I were looking to invest in Collingswood in 2003-04. We were just looking for an investment property. We were going to rent the upstairs as an apartment and rent the downstairs to whoever; a business. We weren't thinking it had to necessarily be a restaurant.
Patch: So you didn't acquire this property with plans to make it a restaurant?
Infantado: No, it was just going to be an investment! So Lawrence, in 2005, he sold his shares in his two restaurants, and was looking for a new project. We brought him on as a partner in the building and the restaurant. We wound up buying him out in 2009. That was a turning point for the business.
I have to tell you we wouldn't have come out as successful as we are without my best friend and general manager Denise Pomarici and our entire staff.
Patch: How much work did you have to do on this building to convert it into a functional restaurant?
Infantado: We gutted it from the basement to the attic. Four floors, we ripped everything out. The only thing we didn't touch were the front windows and the front siding because it was historic. And basically we did it all ourselves.
Patch: So is ? There are rumors.
Infantado: I was never a believer, but a lot of bad things happened at Casona. I was looking for an explanation so I did reach out to a paranormal team to see if they were able to find something out of the ordinary.
Patch: Are any of the recipes you use at Casona recipes that you cook for your own family?
Infantado: There are a few. I try to make the arroz con pollo, which is our No. 1-selling chicken dish, but I can't come near to how the chef does it here. I try the fajitas too.
Patch: What is your favorite comfort food? Are there any particular foods that evoke happy memories for you?
Infantado: My favorite comfort food is breaded, boneless fried chicken with mashed potatoes and corn. My mom used to make that all the time, that was my favorite!
Patch: What does hospitality mean to you? How do you try to show hospitality at Casona?
Infantado: It means that everybody that comes through that door will walk in with a smile and leave with a smile. It means everybody around here is smiling and making sure every little detail is defined, from the food presentation to the cleanliness of the restaurant. (Laughs) One little thing could throw somebody off on a rampage!
Patch: What sort of wine or spirits do you recommend diners bring to accompany Casona's cuisine?
Infantado: I would recommend an Argentinian red or white wine.
Patch: Are there any ways that you work cooperatively with other businesses in Collingswood?
Infantado: Yes, with Frugal Resale. We do this trade-off, I give them food [for their monthly Ladies Night event], and they give me a lot of good talk. Jimmy across the street from Aster's, he gives me fresh flowers, and we give him food. We also hosted a back in February to encourage people to come out and .
We also participated with other businesses in the at the Collingswood Community Center last month. And all the proceeds from that event went to the South Jersey Food Bank.
Patch: What's your favorite thing on the menu at Casona? What item do you feel is most popular among your guests?
Infantado: Oh, the paella. That's my favorite and that's our number one seller. .
Patch: What's so good about it?
Infantado: Oh, everything. The lobster tail, the shrimp, the clams, the mussels, the saffron. The saffron makes it!
Patch: What do you love about being the owner of Casona? What part of your job brings you the most joy?
Infantado: When a customer writes a great review on Facebook or Yelp or Trip Advisor. When somebody walks out of here happy and they write about it and let people know about it, that brings me the most joy.