Wendy Fabietti and Israel “Izzy” Rodriguez know they have to meet some huge expectations when it comes to The Inn at Sugar Hill in Mays Landing.
So they are going to do it slowly, surely and — most importantly — they are going to do it right.
After all, the historic bed and breakfast and restaurant has been around since 1846, sitting right on the gorgeous Egg Harbor River in the heart of the city. It has not only hosted politicians and celebrities, but it’s a place that has meant a lot to so many, from those who were married there or celebrated a major life event.
So instead of trying to do too much and open the sprawling property in one shot, the “partners” decided they would open it in stages, starting with Izzy’s River Landing, which is now open, then Izzy’s Steak and Seafood House in late October, and then eventually hosting the private parties and events people have hosted there for generations.
“We know there are huge expectations when it comes to us owning the property,” Fabietti says. “That was made clear to us before I even bought it. Everyone loves this place, especially the locals who are right here and live on the river. So many people love to boat here and eat and drink and meet friends. So many people were married here, had their kids’ baptisms here or were baptized themselves here. It’s not just historic in age, but with the community as an important place. I promised the people of this community that we are community driven and we will live up to what the locals want.”
Izzy’s River LandingFirst up is Izzy’s River Landing, the popular waterside part of the property accessible by car or by boaters, who can dock and dine.
“We decided to open that first because that is where everyone wants to be in the summer,” Fabietti says. “It also gave us more time to clean and do some renovations inside before we open up there. The easiest thing to open was the River Deck to start paying the mortgage.”
Rodriguez, an Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing graduate and restaurant veteran for Chickie’s & Pete’s at the Tropicana, Margaritaville at Resorts and the former Robert’s Steakhouse at Hard Rock, has assembled a very nice comfort food menu for the outside space, which boasts table and bar seating under tents adjacent to his small kitchen containing a brick oven for flatbreads, three deep fryers and a large grill.
“The idea is to just keep it fun, casual and fresh out there,” Rodriguez says. “We didn’t want to do anything too crazy. We just wanted to make sure we delivered quality food and see what we could do out of our makeshift kitchen that we put together in two or three days.”
Start with some fresh clams, oysters and shrimp cocktail (market price) from the raw bar before sharing some starters like the River Fries ($11.99) waffle fries tossed in Old Bay seasoning and topped with crab meat, cheese sauce and a garlic-herb aioli; wings ($13.99) with choice of buffalo, BBQ or house-made sweet Thai chili sauces; Wisconsin cheese curds ($10.99) with spicy ranch dipping sauce; coconut shrimp ($14.99) with raspberry sauce; calamari ($14.99) with cherry peppers and marinara; and buttermilk fried chicken tenders ($10.99) with honey mustard.
The gorgeous brick oven is pumping out some great flatbreads with simple red or white styles ($10.99), or choose a special Izzy creation like the Clams Casino ($14.99) with garlic, mozzarella, clams casino filling, EVOO and littleneck clams; the Crab Flatbread ($14.99) with garlic, mozzarella, herbs, Old Bay, lump crab and EVOO; and the Veggie Flatbread ($11.99) with tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh assorted veggies.
Burgers ($12.99) are made with 6 ounces of fresh angus beef, and diners can build their own with toppings that include fried onions, mushrooms, pickles, cherry peppers and roasted peppers.
And there are four sandwiches, the most popular being the 8-ounce crab cake ($16.99) sandwich served on a brioche roll with lettuce, tomato, house-made smoked paprika and garlic aioli. There is also an Adobo chicken sandwich ($9.99), and chicken or tuna salad wraps ($10.99 each).
“The winners have been the crab cake – everyone seems to love that – the flatbreads coming out of that nice oven, the raw bar, and the lobster tails that I have been getting from Canada that I run as specials,” Rodriguez says. “They are beautiful, cold-water tails from Canada and up north, and I just open them up, put them in the brick oven with some brown butter, and that’s it. People just love them.”
Most people associate the Inn with Larry & Tina Boylan, who opened The Inn at Sugar Hill in the late 1980s and owned it for 32 years before selling it in June 2019 to Yogi Kumar, who only operated it for about a year before closing for COVID and deciding to sell.
In came Fabietti, whose original bid in September 2020 wasn’t enough to secure the purchase. However, after financing fell through with the high bidder, Fabietti was back in the picture and renegotiated the deal in February before closing in June.
“I wanted to find something that had a liquor license attached to it and something I could afford,” says Fabietti, whose accountant husband Victor also helps manage the restaurant. “I couldn’t spend a million dollars on a property. I needed something that was in our price range and was something I could pour my heart into. And this was perfect.”
This isn’t Fabietti’s first foray into the restaurant industry. She also owned Pork Island Grill in Ocean City for two years. It closed permanently on Labor Day.
“Sometimes, things don’t work out for a variety of reasons, so you move on, and I couldn’t be happier with this new opportunity and adventure,” Fabietti says. “If it wasn’t for Pork Island Grill, I wouldn’t have met Izzy, so things happen for a reason.”
Although they aren’t legal business partners, Fabietti says she considers Rodriguez a true partner.
“He is my executive chef, but in every sense of the word, he is my partner,” she says. “I don’t make a move without consulting Izzy. Sometimes we go back and forth for 45 minutes on a topic, and then we all come to an understanding. We might not agree, but we come to an understanding. In my eyes, it’s Izzy’s place, and hopefully we can make his dream come true … and make some money along the way.”
Now that Pork Island is closed, Rodriguez’ wife Alisha will transfer from there to become the general manager at The Inn at Sugar Hill.
“We are all intertwined, the four of us,” Fabietti says. “We are all driven by hard work and high standards. We want to put out the highest quality, and we won’t rest until we achieve it. We all make each other a little better each day.”
Rodriguez says he is touched by Fabietti’s trust in him and his wife.
“I am really excited and really blessed,” he says. “We talk about everything … even the wallpaper. She says to me. ‘Whatever you want, Izzy,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we have to do this together!’ It’s really great for someone to have that must trust in me, so I am determined to make something special out of this place. It’s pretty rare to have someone believe in you and invest in you like this and to give me all the leash I want. So I have to live up to it and make sure we always do the right thing.”
Fabietti has big plans for The Inn at Sugar Hill. She has already put a new roof on the main building, and she is aware a lot more has to be done.
“It’s a beautiful property, but certain things were neglected, and it needs a lot of work,” she says. “We hope to do one major project a year to restore it back to its glory days. We know we got it at the price we did because it needs work put into it. And we will do that.”
Izzy’s River Landing will continue to offer live music on weekends, and two 55-inch televisions are being installed to watch NFL games, hopefully by Week 2.
“People are asking us to stay open out there year round,” Fabietti says. “And we are considering it. Locals say they want to come here on a Saturday night and hang out. So we are talking about putting heaters and sidewalls on the tents and giving it a try.”
After that, Izzy’s Steak and Seafood House is slated to open by the third week in October.
“We are not doing a lot of renovations inside, but we did buy some antique furniture and new curtains and we’re freshening it up and doing lots of cleaning,” Fabietti says. “Izzy is creating a menu that we think everyone will love.”
“It’s going to be a classic steakhouse that focuses on fresh food,” Rodriguez says. “I want to do some tableside Caesar salads and bananas foster. I want to put out some great seafood, lobster tails and pasta. I am not about being Picasso on a plate. But I can stand with the best of them when it comes to fresh dishes and flavors.”
Most importantly, The Inn is back open, and Fabietti says she’s overwhelmed by people’s response.
“People have come out in full support of us,” she says. “People have been just unbelievable. We more than doubled the numbers that were here when the former owner had it for the year he was here. So, yes, we’re excited. We know we have something special here.”