The Tuscan Table: The Story Of A Proud General Manager And Her Unique Restaurant
By Steve Sears
Luljeta Koliq, 28, better known as “Lilly” to The Tuscan Table of Denville patrons, remembers the day well when she started as a General Manager for her family’s new restaurant.
“I got involved,” she recalls, “and when I do something, I do it with my all. I’m 100 percent into it. I organized it, I cleaned it. I made sure all the workers were dressed on point. I didn’t care if it was just a little pizzeria, I took it very serious.”
Her dad, proprietor of the family’s then four restaurants, saw her work ethic and said, as his daughter remembers, ‘You know what? I’m opening up a restaurant in Denville. I want that to be your restaurant. And down the road, it’s going to be yours forever. So, take it very seriously and show me what you’ve got.’
The Tuscan Table has, since March 2015, been a go-to restaurant for many. In addition to their Denville BYOB venture, the Koliq restaurant family also owns and operates Il Villaggio Restaurant in Morris Plains, and three Delizia Pizza Kitchen locations in Dover, Flemington and Ledgewood.
Her reaction to her dad’s declaration? “I rolled my eyes,” she says, laughing.
“I was very nervous,” she says. “I knew that this business was 24/7, all day, all night and no life, you know. At first, I didn’t really see that because I really didn’t want it. But then I was like, ‘Okay, now I really have to be serious.’”
The early days were rough; they tested her, she learned, and she came out stronger. But she also had help, often in tears calling her father.
She recalls conversations with her father, saying, “When I talked to him, I just asked him, ‘How did you do it?’ And he told me, ‘Listen, I came to this country (he was born in Montenegro, the former Yugoslavia) when I was 19. I knew no English, I didn’t have a penny in my pocket. I had no family or friends here. I was all alone, by myself. How do you think I felt?’ And when he said that, I said, ‘You know what, I’m acting like a baby. I’m acting like this is such a bad thing.’ He gave me something and he had to work hard for this. He trusted me and I’m calling him up crying, saying ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this!’”
“It’s a business, it doesn’t matter how old I am, that I don’t have college a bit,” she says. “It’s a business that was given to me and I’m learning it from my father. So, if anything happens, I call and ask, ‘How would you take it? How would you do it?’ And he teaches me along the way.”
The Tuscan Table, cuisine-wise, is not just a “chicken parmigiana, veal parmigiana, and ravioli” Italian eatery. However, some have that notion.
“A lot of people say that about us,” she says. “I read a review where it said that for the price you pay at this place (The Tuscan Table) you can just go to your local pizza joint, get it to go, bring it home, crack a 6-pack, and that’s it. I wanted to prove them wrong, so I gave them a call, and I told them ‘I want you to come back here, I’m not telling you to delete what you wrote, I’m not telling you to write another review, but I want you to come back here and try my food. And I want you to tell me, after you have your experience here again, what you really meant.’ And the guy did come back, and he did tell me he was wrong, and that he was happy with everything,” remembers Koliq.
“I just feel like I am not a pizzeria; I’m more than that,” she attests definitively.
“Out of all these restaurants in Denville, I give the biggest portions here; I think I have the best prices for my portions; we give a lot of food; I do a lot to make the customers happy; I’m very accommodating,” says Koliq.
Koliq, overseer of the operation, often stations herself near the line and directs meals prepared by Chef Luis Santiago and his crew to their proper spot via the serving team. No meal is served prior to her inspection, and she never wears high heels, but instead comes dressed in The Tuscan Table attire. She rolls up her sleeves and works with her workers.
On Monday, The Tuscan Table offers an all-day, 5-course Men & Ladies’ Night meal for $25. This specialty of the week at The Tuscan Table, devised by Koliq herself, consists of salad, soup, appetizer, entrée, and dessert with coffee or tea. The Tuscan Table is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, and the entire menu can be found on their Facebook page, or at www.thetuscantabledenville.com.
The menu is staying the same but will soon have some delicious additions.
“We are going to have more seafood items, like the sesame ginger fried calamari, as well as rice balls with mozzarella cheese in marinara sauce. I just like to add nice things to the menu,” explains Koliq. In addition, prepare for a shrimp sesame with broccoli, asparagus and peppers in a ginger glaze, grilled salmon with mango and onions atop risotto, and pasta primavera in garlic and oil.
Asked to name current popular items, Koliq says “The Giant Meatball appetizer and Broccoli Rabe and Sausage appetizers.” For $10, the first is a filled sphere of ground beef topped with tomato sauce, and ricotta and parmigiano cheese. The Broccoli Rabe and Sausage appetizer ($11) is prepared greenery and slices of Italian sausage sautéed in garlic and extra virgin olive oil, topped with shavings of aged cheese.
As for popular entrees, “Chili Pepper Chicken Rigatoni ($18), Chicken Marsala ($18), Veal Riviera ($21)…” Koliq then halts and laughs. “Would you like me to keep going?”
Her own favorite changes week after week; this week it’s the Penna Puttanesca ($14). “That’s what I’ve been eating every day so far this week,” states Koliq.
She then takes a breath, thinks for a moment, and then continues, “We bring a uniqueness. We’re different. Were Italian food but we’ll do steak. On our specials there’ll be something that’s not Italian. Or I’ll tell him [Santiago] that one night I want grilled octopus or do a nice pork chop.”
Then there’s the oatmeal cookies, available to patrons before and after their meal. “That’s another thing that makes us unique, we give oatmeal cookies for free,” says Koliq.
Koliq now aspires to open her own eatery, and her dad supports her.
“When we first opened this (The Tuscan Table), when we were just building it, we were standing outside, and he said, ‘Down the road, I’d like you to own this whole block. That’s what I want from you.’ I said to myself, ‘That’s just a great idea; I’d love to do that,’” recalls Koliq.
Often late at night, when the doors of The Tuscan Table are closed and locked, she sits and ponders, “I look around and say, ‘Wow, he [her father]) literally did all of this. This was from scratch. He created this. He gave this to me.’ He didn’t have to give this to me. He could’ve given it to my brother [Azem, her current business partner]; my brother was the one doing everything at first and thank God I have him. So, he actually trusted me, had faith in me, saw that I was able to do something, actually make a business go, and that showed me, ‘Wow, I actually have potential, I actually can do something.’”