Global Cuisine

Cafe Jordano Continues Its Three-Decade Authentic Italian Legacy in Lakewood

Nate Day
Cafe Jordano boasts a large menu, including a whole section of buffalo dishes, an American twist on traditional Italian fare.
Almost thirty years after she co-founded Cafe Jordano in Lakewood, Elisa Heitman moved the eatery from its small storefront space to a larger unit next door at 11068 West Jewell Avenue. “Some people say, ‘I miss the little hole-in-the-wall look,’” she says. “I’m like, ‘I don’t.’”

Now, a little over four years after the move, Heitman is proud of how Cafe Jordano has grown, gushing over its “functionality” and more professional look, including an updated kitchen and more room for regulars. The neighborhood staple came from humble beginnings when Heitman, who was born in Italy, and her now-ex-husband decided to start a restaurant after she fell in love with the industry following a series of “boring” gigs.

“I loved it. I could barely speak English, and I got really good tips because everybody loved the accent and the fact that I could barely understand,” she recalls. “That was a long time ago.” When they were “young and crazy” with “no money,” the couple opened Cafe Jordano with a little help from Heitman's mother: $12,000.
click to enlarge Cafe Jordano moved to its current location just over four years ago. - NATE DAY
Cafe Jordano moved to its current location just over four years ago.
Nate Day

“In those days, you could do that, you know?” Heitman says of the early-’90s business venture. “Because in those days, the idea of opening a restaurant and being small and not that fancy was okay. Now they do these $5 million buildouts, and they go broke a year later because they can’t pay the payment.”

Heitman recalls putting lights that cost just $12.99 on the walls, and lining the empty spaces with photos of her family because they had such a small budget for decor. These days, photos of Heitman’s father and grandfather still hang on the walls, but now they’re joined by photos of Heitman’s children, grandchild and niece.

“Everybody said, ‘You’re not gonna make it, you don’t have operating costs, you need at least a year,’” she remembers. Luckily, thanks to a helpful friend and her own hard work, Cafe Jordano “started getting busy” and took off quickly.

“We brought a different concept, which now is an old concept,” she says of how the restaurant became popular in the ’90s. “When we started thirty years ago, we did sautéed dishes — nobody did sautéed dishes! That was a downtown thing. Nobody in the suburbs — they did lasagna, ravioli and pizza, so we brought a new concept.”

She adds that from time to time, she thinks her concept is becoming outdated, but she simply can’t bring herself to change anything. “People would kill me,” she jokes. “I’ve got people that have been coming here for thirty years. I have three generations. I have guests that were kids then and come with their babies now.”
click to enlarge Cafe Jordano is decorated with pictures of owner Elisa Heitman's family in Italy. - NATE DAY
Cafe Jordano is decorated with pictures of owner Elisa Heitman's family in Italy.
Nate Day

The menu is stuffed with authentic Italian dishes like parmigiana de melezane (eggplant parmesan), penne vodka, and gnocchi with sliced sausage. Of course, there are plenty of antipasto offerings, as well as chicken and fish dishes. Notably, the restaurant also offers buffalo dishes — an alternative to the veal that was used during Cafe Jordano's early days. The move brought the restaurant attention from across the country. “A lot of people go, ‘They don’t have buffalo in Italy.’ I go, ‘They have water buffalo,’” Heitman says. “Plus, that’s not the point. We’re in America.”

A lot of the recipes are from Heitman’s Naples home, but others are “kind of fusions” that her ex-husband helped create. Most of the dishes have been on the menu for Cafe Jordano's entire 31-year run, with changes only happening very rarely. “We don’t change the menu. We’re not one of those restaurants,” Heitman insists. “We do a special every day.”

Changes in staffing aren’t terribly common, either, with a number of staff members having occupied their positions for many years — one for nearly 30, while the main cook has been around for 27.

“I feel that we were always affordable,” Heitman says of what’s kept Cafe Jordano in business for over three decades. “We were the middle of the road. We were not fancy, we’re not cheap.” Pasta dishes run from $14.25 to $15.50, chicken dishes clock in at $16.50, and buffalo dishes are just a dollar more.

“I think we were at the right spot, plus they say the food is good and we know everybody,” she adds. “We have community support big time.” With business booming, Heitman envisions herself giving Cafe Jordano “at least ten more years” before considering her next step.

“Who knows?” she says of the restaurant’s future, hinting that it could stay in the family, but that’s ultimately a decision for another day. “I tell people — I’ll tell you — the restaurant business, if you have a passion, it’s hard. If you don’t have a passion, it’s hell. I have the passion. To me, it’s not work. I love it.”