The Recipe for Italian Restaurants in NJ

I couldn’t even guess how many restaurants in New Jersey classify themselves as Italian. They run the gamut from pizzerias that serve simple Italian dishes to cafes or casual, to upscale dining. It comes as no surprise since New Jersey has the second highest number of Italian Americans in the country at 1,503,637, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

I tend to lose interest quickly when I hear that a “new” Italian restaurant opened. Our market is saturated, but we all have a few favorites, and it’s often based on proximity. For some, quantity is a factor; others weigh quality heavier when comparing. I lean toward the latter, but location definitely plays favor. When my preferred casual Italian restaurant shuttered recently, a number of people I know were distraught – not because there is a lack of other choices, but because it had the formula for somewhere you can enjoy frequenting twice a month or more… quality food, hospitality, inexpensive and 10 minutes from home in Bergen County. I mentioned in a previous column that I may have found my rebound with La Cambusa in Garfield. Less than a month ago, however, a new Italian restaurant opened in Bergenfield, called The Recipe, on the corner of S. Washington and E. Clinton avenues.

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A repulsive feeling came over me – “oh, another glorified pizzeria serving lots of low-grade-cheese parmigiana dishes to try to qualify as an Italian restaurant.” But a coupon lured me in along with dangling carrots of location and cute appearance (the full-size windows allow you to see through as you drive by). My second foot in the door, and I was greeted with a warm smile and a “good evening.” That got off on the right foot. The menu is not extravagant but has basic pastas, veal, chicken, seafood and steak dishes, along with a creative list of specials, which only averaged $24.

20160219_204721The menu items were less. My first real taste of The Recipe came after the warm bread and the soup (choice of minestrone or chicken noodle that comes with an entrée) was the eggplant stack appetizer with beefy tomato slices, fresh mozzarella – the top layer slightly melted – thick breaded eggplant slices and a bed of mixed greens, all drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Thumbs up!

I usually test an Italian restaurant with a veal dish or a pasta/seafood combo. The first visit scored an 88 with a veal francese and artichoke hearts ($19). The second visit scored an 89.5 with the Linguini Del Mar red sauce (also $19), large butterflied shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari. The calamari was slightly overdone but not enough to detract from the rest of the goodness. More importantly, I requested very little garlic, and they listened! Finishing the meal with a decent cappuccino was equally important.

20160219_210831When one’s expectations are low or none is when the gems are discovered. I hope this passes the initial five-year business test because it has a solid B++ in my book. That could definitely go up as I order more.

Another recent Italian restaurant opening is Rugova in River Edge. It reopened the vacant building that housed Dinallo’s. Let us know how you grade these newcomers. Rugova is owned by the same people who have Dimora and Sear House, so they should be good at this.

LET YOUR PERSONAL NEW JERSEY CHEF IMPRESS

rrFor those who concur that food and music can determine a good time – most hosted occasions require more than a tray of penne marinara and salad from your local pizzeria. Now I’m not saying that New Jersey’s pizzerias can’t deliver good food because we New Jerseyans know we have some of the best pizza around. I am talking about the milestone life events, such as a first-year wedding anniversary.

In August 2002, I was trying to plan something special for our one-year September anniversary. It needed to involve really good food and really good music. The standards to be met were high. My husband, although not a professional chef by trade, is an excellent cook. He was also a musician, so I knew the quality had to be high for both. While we had often eaten at fine establishments, this had to be a little more personal. I came up with the idea of hiring a personal chef for the evening and a harp player (couldn’t get one to carry their harp up my front steps, so I wound up with a classical guitarist). I didn’t know anyone who did this at the time, so I researched and came up with Chef John Deatcher/Foodini’s Catering. He’s based in Neptune, but traveled to North Jersey. Unlike some others I had contacted, John did not just offer set menus. He worked with me to create personal dishes for each course with the entrée being Chilean sea bass. We enjoyed his food so much that I hired him to cater a 40-person birthday party. He was impeccable in cleanliness too.

429639_511561445556758_1698383510_nIn 2002, there was no Facebook, so I was not privy to Robert Russo’s journey into the culinary world. We grew up in the same town, and when I found out he had opened a small, high-quality restaurant in Hasbrouck Heights, we immediately made reservations. It was 4-star food and ambience. While the Red Hen Bistro had too short a life, it was even too much for Russo to handle on top of his flourishing catering business. As much as he and everyone who set foot in there loved the restaurant, he decided to put all his efforts into Robert Andrews Caterers & Special Events. While I have not had the need to hire Robert yet in this capacity, I have had the privilege of being served his food personally. His passion for cooking is evident and his desire to “serve only the best for the best” – in his words – has propelled him to go the path of all natural and organic and no GMOs. Robert caters all types of events and provides a personal chef service as well. Maybe Robert’s catering business was not born yet in 2002, and I would not have had this option, but if you want to impress your guests who are wooed by quality food, hire this New Jersey home-grown chef. You’ll understand what it’s like to eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

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Sweet Finish Line on the Jersey Side

I will admit I am a bit of a dessert snob. After all, my mother is a baker by way of Europe. If I eat dessert out, I seek European pastries, cakes or pies. They tend to contain less sugar than American desserts and sit in your stomach a little less like cement. Italian bakeries are present (but not as abundant anymore) in New Jersey if you would like to pick something up and bring it home or to a friend’s house – Rispoli’s in Ridgefield, Il Dolce in Hawthorne, Gencarelli’s in Bloomfield. But what happened to the days of dining out and then going to a café afterwards for dessert and coffee?

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On a recent Saturday evening, I dined out at an Asian restaurant in Fort Lee. Asian restaurants tend to deprive us sweet snobs of satisfying our need to wrap up the culinary experience with a bow. They don’t allow us to divulge in the aroma of coffee, and they try to swindle us with orange slices that come across as saccharin. My first inclination is to be a disloyal Jerseyan and run to Greenwich Village to my favorite Italian pasticceria. After all, it’s 9 p.m. Where could I go for a sugar and caffeine dealer at this hour in New Jersey and actually relax? After seeing the traffic at the GWB, I begin to panic for my fix. My brain recalls a name and a town being mentioned to me and the possibility of the atmosphere I need right now. I search for Palermo’s, Ridgefield Park, enter it into my GPS and arrive in six minutes at a storefront bakery that is rolling up carpets. No! I must have made a mistake in my rushed state of mind. I search again and remember…Palermo’s, yes, but Little Ferry. In just another five minutes, which would’ve been impossible in NYC, I arrive at a palatial Roman-looking building with complimentary valet parking.

Palermo’s Bakery opened this location last year as Palermo’s café for people who long for an establishment where they can relax and socialize over dessert and coffee. Upstairs is the Cake Lounge, which according to the web site “is a contemporary restaurant, lounge and bar that is inspired by classic Italian cuisine with a sweet twist. As a brand extension of Palermo’s Bakery, known for their pristine cake making across the metropolitan area, the Bruno family created The Cake Lounge to better service their clientele with a unique Italian dining experience.” The baking for all of their locations is now done on premises here in Little Ferry. The young woman behind the counter noted that they are known for their cannolis, but I opt for a small work of art that was a light chocolate mousse tower, accompanied by a latte. Both were very gratifying. Palermo’s also offers light fare such as wood fire pizza and sandwiches.

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Fear not, for there are some other Italian bakery cafes that may be open after the dinner hour. Try Palazzone 1960 in Wayne or Calandra’s in Caldwell and you won’t have to pay a toll.

Is my cozy Italian replaceable?

It happens, unfortunately, that the guy or girl you’ve been seeing almost every weekend for nearly six years just up and leaves one day without warning. The explanation is not satisfying nor does it help to replace the void you feel come Friday night. It did happen – Bocconi, who was hospitable, visually appealing and provided high quality food at most affordable prices, slammed its doors in my face unexpectedly. I did get a phone call after the fact, but it hurt. Where would I get those qualities again without traveling too far to meet up?

I admit; I wasn’t 100 percent loyal, but we all need a little variety from time to time. I always returned to my Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ, though. It was home in a sense – our Cheers. My friends would often visit us as well. Something about his landlord forcing him out with high prices touched my compassionate side for a day, until Friday came again. My selfish side scrambled to find a quick replacement to satisfy my social hunger needs. Hey, don’t judge: After all, he left me! How long does one have to wait before replacing the one who left you high and dry? And what about all the mutual acquaintances we developed because of our relationship?

It was only a couple months prior I had met La Cambusa in Garfield, NJ. “Very nice, very affordable,” I thought, “but where’s the Stracciatella Soup? What do you mean you’re not a byob? How come you’re not coming over to me and making friendly conversation? You’re nice, but I don’t feel like you appreciate me yet. I like the food you’re putting in front of me and you’re a little more polished looking than the last one.” So I gave him a second chance out of desperation. La Cambusa is a contender.

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

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Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

The Burrata appetizer ($9) with grilled zucchini and roasted peppers on mixed greens was comparable to Bocconi’s. Can you really go wrong with the natural creaminess of burrata? It’s about the presentation. His homemade pasta was the proper texture: a chewy al dente. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it reminded me of Play-Doh. Anyone who knows homemade pasta can relate to this as being properly cooked. The Fieno – straw & hay – ($17) with crabmeat, shrimp and peas in a pink cream sauce was actually not heavy and was dispersed with fresh seafood (yes, real lumps of crabmeat). It was one of the waiter’s recommended dishes after I asked for suggestions, along with an imported pasta dish of Pennoni with shrimp, clams and monkfish in a marechiaro sauce. Maybe I’ll dive into that on our next date. The specials were introduced to me, and while they were tempting, I really wanted to get to know the core of La Cambusa, since it was only our second date.

La Cambusa really deserves a chance. He doesn’t know my expectations from having been with Bocconi all these years, but certain things he just won’t be able to live up to (like the stracciatella soup). His dishes will obviously never be exactly the same. So in my mourning for the loss of my comfort-culinary companion, I am seeking a rebound place, not out of spite, just out of sheer need. If you decide you are able to come back, Bocconi, I will welcome you with open arms and return to you as well.

You’re a Shining Star, Batard

Every year, for the past five years, I select a Michelin two- or three-star NYC restaurant for my husband and me to celebrate our anniversary. It’s always a surprise to him, and I come off looking magnanimous and benefitting just the same. Having just returned from a California vacation, we needed to trim the expense this time, so I sought out a fine-dining establishment where we could experience high-quality, impressive dishes for maybe half of the cost.

Was this achievable? I was going to find out after securing a reservation at Batard in Tribeca. I had hope in that the restaurant received one Michelin star within its first year of business (opened May 2014). Additionally, Co-owner/Restaurateur Drew Nieporent has quite the resume in his Myriad Restaurant Group, including all the Nobus and Tribeca Grill. Chef and Partner Markus Glocker, of Austria, was most recently in the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay, which earned two Michelin stars during his time there. After doing my homework, I had comfortable expectations of the level of food we were going to consume. It was a different expectation than when we went to Jean Georges and Le Bernardin for example. With three stars, you walk in with one shining on you as the diner, who demands to get the best treatment, one on the server and one on the chef.

The menu at Batard posed some real first-world problems. We had to put a game plan in motion. First, there was the pre-fixe choices of two- ($55), three- ($69) or four-courses ($79)…now you see I’ve accomplished the price-cut challenge. We agreed to both do three courses, but now we had to decide which course..yes, you have a choice! After some algebraic equations, we figured the best combination would be if I ordered an appetizer, first course and entree and he ordered an appetizer and dessert. With this solution, we could share the first course and the dessert. After about 15 minutes – now you see why – we could rest our minds as two different warm, mini rolls were placed on our plates.image

I was torn between the pork belly and quail for an appetizer. When our waitress (is that a sign of a non-3 star?) answered, “No the pork is not crispy,” I was about to say “quail” until she said it was served cold. The pork belly was delectable! I would not have even known what I was eating. It was sliced like a paper-thin prosciutto with the center having a pressed cornbread and bits of blood sausage, happily draped over baby lentils. His OCTOPUS “PASTRAMI” had the appearance of head cheese without the gelatin. It was accompanied by bits of braised ham hock, pommery mustard and new potatoes.image

imageOur shared first course (are you keeping up with the plan?) was the scallops with leak confit, crispy potato strings, in a puddle of red wine sauce. During my first bite I felt both elated and guilty. I have always said my friend Rob Russo made the most tender and delicious scallops at the former Red Hen Bistro in NJ, but in that split second I felt bad to think these could even be a hair better. I absolved myself by believing it was imagejust because this was the more recent one. The “shared” course became 80% me, 20% him.

At a nice pace, and after a little time to process what we had, our entrees came. I was already completely convinced that this food was worth at least two Michelin stars in my book.

BRANDT BEEF SHORT RIB with grilled wagyu beef tongue, lovage polenta, pickled root vegetables. I had tongue only once before and in a Korean bbq style. I was a little nervous about rekindling that feeling of French-kissing a cow, but no; this tasted like a thin grilled steak. The short ribs barely required a knife.image

IMG_2059BRANZINO with roasted cauliflower, buerre noisette, and cannellini beans.

The fourth course rolled in with our shared dessert: DUCK EGG CRÈME BRÛLÉE spiced pineapple, verjus, yogurt sorbet. I’mIMG_2060 an extremely tough critic of desserts. It was good but not exquisite like every other dish. It wouldn’t have been my choice for dessert. I thank Batard for making a decent cup of coffee though…Your one star shines as bright as two!

Elvis Presley Movies… movies to dye for!

Elvis Presley Movies… movies to dye for!.

Fresh from the Farm

When your mother guides you toward healthy eating habits through your growing years, it’s only proper to take her to a fine dining establishment that promotes fresh, local foods. Even though I broke my own principle of not dining out exactly on Mother’s Day, I made the reservation at Blue Hill in New York City’s West Village because the four-course prix fixe menu is standard there, holiday or not. Ingredients come from nearby farms, including the Barbers’ family-owned Blue Hill Farm in Massachusetts. While the already over-used term “farm-to-table dining” makes many eyes roll at the pretentious tone, it still evokes a health-conscious-good feeling in advance of the meal.

A short walk across Washington Square Park, and three steps downward off the sidewalk, we entered a private hideaway that could easily have been missed. The dining room was ordinary with some brick wall and didn’t have an embracing décor. With two items to select from for each of the four courses, the best idea was to order opposite dishes so we could essentially MothersDay15 003try the whole menu. The food that was presented before our first course was simplistic yet exciting – farm cheese that still looked like curd in cloth, butter rolled in toasted grains, and crusty bread (I wish I had written down the description of) preceded the complimentary whole carrots with edible tops and radishes with boursin dip. They were served on slate and appeared to have been plucked from the ground that day – to which my mother proclaimed, “I hope they washed them.”MothersDay15 002

The first course consisted of my Rotation Risotto: twelve local grains, legumes and seeds, and her Roasted Asparagus with beet yogurt and stinging nettles. When I asked the waiter about the risotto, he explained it was the rotation of crops used to consistently feed the farm animals throughout the year. The chef played with that concept to turn them into a creamy risotto. My mother then whispered something about us being guinea pigs.

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MothersDay15 007The second course delivered my Maine Halibut with currants, pine nuts, apple, fennel and chickweed, along with her Farm Egg, fiddleheads, morels and ramps. Are you feeling the flood of vitamins yet?MothersDay15 006

The main course for me was Roast Chicken, curried carrots and fighter spinach. Don’t sigh at the boring thought of chicken. This bird did not taste like Perdue. It was something far more flavorful. Even more scrumptious was her Grass Fed Lamb with eight row flint corn, Jerusalem artichokes and pea shoots.

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We finished with poached Rhubarb, goat cheese, quinoa and blue hill milk sorbet plus a plate of Chocolate Bread Pudding, blue hill milk jam and cocoa nibs ice cream. We joked that the coffee would be disappointing after that wonderful meal. They should grow coffee beans because this coffee was watery and contradicted all that we consumed.

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