There’s a moment of disbelief when you arrive at Bar Cara. You’re in a modest strip mall, wondering if this is really the second restaurant from the DePersio family, owners of Montclair’s excellent Fascino. With Fascino, the DePersios brought sophistication and serious food to a formerly barren stretch of Bloomfield Avenue. This wouldn’t be the first time their kitchen punched well above its location.
At Bar Cara (an acronym for Cynthia, the mom and pastry chef; Anthony, the dad and businessman; Ryan, the son and chef; and Anthony, the son and general manager), they’ve acquired a liquor license and an odd space. There was a soapy odor reminiscent of a hair salon on my visits, but it was eventually overpowered by the smell of Parmesan grated tableside over the occasionally excellent but sadly inconsistent Italian fare.
Fascino is fine dining Italian style; Bar Cara strives for a more casual vibe with occasional overlap in menu. Chef Ryan DePersio imported his mascarpone polenta fries with gorgonzola fonduta from Montclair.
They’re right at home and just as good here, although the bland, breaded, zucchini chips are unlikely to enjoy the same success, and the bar food at Bar Cara is generally the least appealing. A pork burger was dry, underseasoned. Fried calamari was barely crisp despite a cornmeal crust. And the kitchen loses the theme when they pile on flavors, as they did with beef carpaccio drowned in citrus segments, shaved fennel and ricotta salata.
The pizzas, which you won’t find at Fascino, are a high point—crisp, nicely baked, and topped with well-conceived combinations like spicy pork belly, sweet tomatoes and ricotta salata. You should stick to the fresh pastas on the menu, because the kitchen seems to lavish its attention on the orecchiette and the cavatelli hand-made by “Papa Mac” DePersio, grandfather of the chef. Orecchiette soaked up the flavor of juicy, woodsy mushrooms and sautéed spinach; cavatelli was a perfect vehicle for nuggets of sausage and bitter broccoli rabe. The ricotta gnocchi, another Fascino staple, is a little less luscious and pillowy here, served in a veal Bolognese that didn’t have quite the same depth of flavor, but even the lesser version is very good. Penne with basil-tomato sauce was unremarkable by contrast, and the addition of eggplant to bucatini all’amatriciana did nothing but water it down.
The pork chop is a version of the masterful one from Fascino, but branzino was too fishy, and chicken parmigiana offered no significant improvement on the version at a good deli (such as Princeton landmark Hoagie Haven) and cost nearly four times as much.
Cocktails are mostly overwrought, spiked with fruit juice and flavored vodkas, and not particularly stiff. The in-house beverage program is unappealing across the board—espresso so watery it could have been a very short Americano. The wine list, on the other hand, is brief but well priced and nicely curated. The juicy, ultra-reliable Vinetti Barbera is one of the most food-friendly wines around and a steal at $33.
Service was a comedy of errors to the point that I wound up rooting for the harried, earnest and incredibly green staff as they placed plates in front of the wrong people and disappeared without providing silverware again and again. Pre-dinner cocktails languished on the table until dessert, which, fortunately, is pretty good. The “ultimate” sundae is made with bittersweet chocolate sauce and very good gelato, and the crème brûlée is as good as it is at Fascino.
I’ve never been one for tiramisu, so on one visit I brought my great-uncle, who emigrated from Italy in 1958. “Pretty good,” he said, when we had tried it. “Maybe a little dry.” He gave a grudging shrug of approval, which pretty much summed up my feelings when the check arrived.