SCALINI FEDELI
63 Main Street
Chatham, New Jersey
973-701-9200

Food: Italian with a French accent
Ambience: Tuscan villa
Service: Inconsistent
Wine List: BYOB
Price Value: Worth the expense

Review by NJ Monthly

S calini Fedeli was a success the moment it opened four years ago, and the excitement has endured. Want proof? Try getting a reservation on a weekend. When I heard that chef/owner Michael Cetrulo, who also owns Il Mondo Vecchio in Madison, recently opened his first Manhattan eatery, Scalini Fedeli New York, it seemed a good time to see how the original Scalini Fedeli fares without its leader in the kitchen full-time. So far the transition seems smooth.

The dining room has all the atmosphere of a Tuscan villa, with vaulted ceilings, soft lighting, and tapestry-covered chairs. But I remember there being more space between tables when the restaurant first opened. Now if a noisy group were seated nearby, it might be difficult to be romantic.

The extensive dinner menu is price-fixed at $52, a $10 increase from my visit five years ago, though still a bargain compared to the $60 charged at the restaurant's new counterpart. Add to that supplemental charges of $3 to $9 on several dishes, and your meal is quite pricey. But the food is rich, unusual, and often superb, the ingredients are top quality, and portions are large.

In the wonderful mushroom napoleon, the richness of sautéwild mushrooms and sliced artichokes layered in light phyllo pastry is cut by a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Seared foie gras, nicely served on a bed of roasted apples and wilted spinach in a puddle of port-duck sauce, is garnished with roasted hazelnuts that contrast well with the dish's otherwise soft texture. A seafood appetizer special of half a lobster tail and one large shrimp in a white-wine sauce is good but contains enough garlic and spices to fell a vampire. Pumpkin risotto with sage, pancetta, and cubes of melting mozzarella is too sweet for my taste, but others at my table love it.

A giant ravioli filled with ricotta, spinach, sliced white truffles, and a lightly cooked egg yolk and topped with Parmesan and brown butter is delicious. Smaller ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms in a light truffle-enhanced cream sauce is equally wonderful. Though the pasta in both dishes could be cooked a little more, the lovely earthy flavor imparted by the truffles is positively addictive. Squid-ink pappardelle (wide, flat pasta) tossed with shrimp, clams, and mussels in a saffron-tomato broth is another good appetizer, as is the penne with sausage, mushrooms, and chunks of tomatoes and onion, though both dishes are a little too heavy to precede a main course.

My favorite entréare the moist pan-grilled salmon over mushroom risotto, the red snapper fillet with a crisp semolina crust served on a bed of arugula, and the braised lamb shank. The latter, so tender that it falls from the bone at a touch, receives a flavorful punch from a rosemary spear and a topping of lemon-garlic gremolata. A pork medallion special sliced with mushrooms and vodka-mascarpone sauce is very good, as is a fist-sized venison chop with a tangy red-wine sauce and little puddles of blue cheese, spinach, and roasted hazelnuts. The veal Milanese, pounded thin and with the bone still attached, is lovely and moist.

Disappointments are few, but the saddle of rabbit with zucchini, salsify, and artichokes in a black-olive sauce is tough, and the sauce overpowers it. Halibut with littleneck clams and slivered vegetables in a creamy champagne broth sounds wonderful but just doesn't come together.

After the main course, sorbet is served. One evening it arrives melting on hot plates--just the kind of detail that stops this very good restaurant from becoming truly wonderful. And though the meal is always well paced and the manager charming, some of the waiters are positively supercilious. One evening our waiter passes our table repeatedly without noticing that we have to pour our own wine. And three busboys clutching pepper mills descend before we taste the food.

The best dessert is the crispy chocolate-covered phyllo pastry layered with a terrific chocolate ganache and whipped cream. A napoleon of plain phyllo pastry and fresh berries is topped with a lemon-lime- flavored mascarpone cream that is too sharp for my liking. The hazelnut dacquoise with chocolate-coated pralines and a pistachio sauce, mascarpone-and-ricotta torte with strawberries in balsamic vinegar, and individual butter tart with an intense chocolate filling and caramelized orange peel are all terrific. The cheese plate has a nice variety of interesting cheeses in good condition. -- V.S.

63 Main Street, Chatham (973-701-9200). Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 2 pm. Dinner: Monday, 5:30 to 8:30 pm; Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Wheelchair access easy. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two averages $112.

 

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