Make no mistake about it. Hostess Nancy Pagano runs the show around here. No, she's not la patrona, but you'd certainly think so considering the way she works the crowd. She's the one who takes your reservation (briskly and, some might say, brusquely); the one who greets you and, when there's a wait, sends you up the street for a drink; and the one who patrols the dining room to ask you if everything's okay. Even if you were malcontent, you'd probably not tell her lest you risk having the proverbial velvet rope go up the next time you try to get a table. When Nancy's in the house, Nancy is the house.
The house, however is owned by über-chef Michael Cetrullo, 31, who earned his toque working at three-star restaurants in France during the eighties. He opened this bustling Morris County favorite when he was barely 23--and to rave reviews. Then, three years ago, he opened his second restaurant, Scalini Fedeli in nearby Chatham, which took him away from his original venture on a daily basis. But he had little reservation passing the spatula at Il Mondo Vecchio to Gilberto Cuartas, 33, who worked his way up the line here since the restaurant opened. The transition was seamless.
Under Cetrullo's watchful eye--not to mention that of his father, Joseph, who stands sentry in the dining room--Cuartas replicates Cetrullo's contemporary Italian fare as if he were raised on this cuisine in his native Columbia. Just taste his delicious Scampi Toscana appetizer of jumbo shrimp saute with saffron and garlic and tossed with cannellini beans dressed in a light tomato sauce. You'll see what I mean.
Among the other appetizers, beef carpaccio with Parmesan cheese is a sure bet, as are the steamed clams with white wine, garlic, and fresh herbs. Surprisingly for an Italian restaurant, the salads are imaginative, and there's not a Caesar among them. Try the earthy spinach with roasted pears and Gorgonzola cheese, or the mouthwatering fennel with radicchio and Parmesan shavings dressed in balsamic vinegar.
Pastas, as expected, are an entity unto themselves. Avoid having to choose between pasta and meat by ordering a pasta entree & an appetizer for two. Try the Rigatoni Zingara, with hot cherry peppers, mushrooms, prosciutto, and black olives in a light tomato sauce, or the spaghetti with shrimp, asparagus, and sun-dried tomatoes in a brandy-cream sauce. My only complaint about the pastas is that they aren't always served on warm plates; on one occasion, this ruins an otherwise delicious special of porcini ravioli in a truffle-cream sauce.
While the name of this restaurant--not to mention the decor and size of the portions--represents the Old World, the main courses are mostly the classic, contemporary fare found in several regions of Italy, not just the tomato-rich cuisine of the South. Sure, you can order shrimp wrapped in pancetta, or veal stuffed with prosciutto, but subtle variations in almost every dish reflect a modern sensibility. Red snapper, for instance, is sauteed with savory fresh rosemary and garlic; salmon is pan-roasted with a pungent champagne-and-mustard sauce. The best dish on the menu, in fact, is the simplest: a giant veal chop on the bone grilled with fragrant rosemary and sage. It is so tender you can cut it with a fork, and the sauteed mushrooms that accompany it are wonderful.
Of the ten desserts regularly offered, two stand out: the rich chocolate torte served with hazelnut gelato, and the tiny cannolocini, which are baby cannoli shells, stuffed with fresh raspberries and Chambord cream. Although both are fabulous, it's too bad the coffee isn't up to snuff as well. --A. G.
72 Main Street, Madison (973-301-0024). Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 pm. Wheelchair access easy. All major credit cards. Dinner for two averages $80.