‘Creating Sorriso Kitchen has been a wonderful ride. Folks love our food and our mission.’
Jimmy Bellas, Glen Head
“In a Greek-Italian family, food is a big focus. I grew up in my family’s restaurant in Port Washington. After getting married, my career path took me into corporate America, but I always missed the restaurant business.
“My wife, Karen, and I have two sons, L.J., who has Down syndrome, and Nico. I would tell our boys countless stories about our restaurant and talk about someday opening a place again — a place where L.J. could work with us. Sadly, there are very few work opportunities available for the developmentally disabled.
We’ve established the Reasons to Smile Foundation Inc., a nonprofit charity to support services that will empower and train young adults with special needs to reach their potential within the workforce and community.
“Urged on by Nico, who said we should just ‘Go for it,’ we realized this was the time. L.J. was then 17 and would be graduating at 21. We decided to open a small restaurant [in Chatham, New Jersey]. With my background and Karen’s as a creative director and designer, we created Sorriso Kitchen, a farm-to-table eatery serving a breakfast and lunch menu with a focus on quality ingredients, excellent service, and a welcoming environment.
“We named the restaurant after our oldest son. Sorriso means smile, and L.J. brings a smile to everyone he meets. We wanted to create a safe place where L.J. could work and be a vibrant part of the community. We also thought about the other kids with disabilities and an idea was born: We would close the restaurant on Mondays and create a real-life classroom for kids with special needs.
“We partnered with L.J.’s school, and the program began. We now run programs for two schools where these kids can learn restaurant skills so they can find jobs after graduation. Each semester ends with a luncheon where graduates, accompanied by the Sorriso staff, serve meals to their family and friends and receive certificates of completion.
“It is such an amazing and uplifting event. Creating Sorriso Kitchen has been a wonderful ride. Folks love our food and our mission. As a result, we’ve established the Reasons to Smile Foundation Inc., a nonprofit charity to support services that will empower and train young adults with special needs to reach their potential within the workforce and community. We are excited about what the future will bring.”
Interviewed by Saul Schachter