You can tell a lot about a BYO from the wines people bring. Often it may be just a random bottle from the local liquor store—something to wash down the food and take the edge off. But there are certain kitchens that diehard oenophiles trust to amplify the pleasures of a cult pinot noir, a carefully-cellared Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Looking around the dining room on my first visit, it was clear that Fascino, in Montclair, attracts that kind of wine drinker. Even with a pretty good Barbera d’Asti in hand, I suffered some bottle envy when I saw what my fellow diners had brought. I took it as a sign of good things to come.
When Fascino opened in June 2003, the owners staked out a spot on what was then the less-desirable eastern stretch of Montclair’s Restaurant Row, Bloomfield Avenue, betting that gentrification would roll downhill and the food would make a destination of Fascino. (The name, which means fascination in Italian, is pronounced with accent on the first syllable.) They were right on both counts; the neighborhood is looking up, and almost from the start chef Ryan DePersio drew crowds with dishes worthy of that special bottle you’ve been saving.
After a stint at Jean-Georges in Manhattan and a Michelin three-star in Florence (Enoteca Pinchiorri) in 2002, DePersio returned to New Jersey to set about opening a family restaurant in the most literal sense. His mother, Cynthia, quit her job in recipe development to oversee desserts at Fascino, and his brother, Anthony, walked away from an analyst gig at Morgan Stanley to be the restaurant’s general manager. Anthony Sr. keeps the books, and Cynthia’s father, “Papa Mac” Martino, makes cavatelli and orecchiette at home and delivers them to the restaurant.
The all-in-the-family motif extends to finances, as I discovered when I asked about investors. “We don’t take ’em,” Ryan says. “We don’t like anybody telling us what to do.” (The DePersios have just opened a second, more casual Italian restaurant, Bar Cara, with a liquor license, in Bloomfield.)
The exterior is all but unmarked, and the interior, though more welcoming, is decidedly understated. The lighting is soft and low. Nothing distracts from what’s on the plate.
To appreciate DePersio’s range and depth, your best bet is the five-course, $65 tasting menu. It perennially includes ethereal gnocchi made with ricotta instead of potato, coated in a luxuriant Bolognese, with the subtle, salty bite of pecorino Romano. That dish was preceded by another knockout: a pair of pristine porcini-dusted scallops over farro risotto spiked with crunchy scallions and vinegary peperonata, and topped with a red pepper foam that lent a faint heat to balance the creamy sweetness. The scallops are offered as an entrée too, but almost everything I tried was better in its micro, tasting-menu form. The pork chop from the tasting menu was a revelation—the Berkshire pork cooked to a juicy, perfect medium under pomegranate glaze, and served on a bed of smoky pancetta-braised lentils, rich with parmesan and scallions. When I tried an entrée portion on another visit, the pork was slightly dry, and the dish only very good.
The excellent pasta at Fascino is all made in-house (or at grandpa’s place), but it is occasionally marred by its accompaniments—an oily caramelized cauliflower pesto with excellent orecchietti, an underseasoned crimini mushroom marsala over delicious fettucini. But then you try that gnocchi, or the stunning cavatelli with octopus and plum tomatoes, in which DePersio ignores the church-and-state separation of fish and cheese with delicious shavings of ricotta salata.
He makes a technically perfect Japanese tempura batter with sparkling water—a technique picked up in Florence to keep the flour from clumping. The batter coats some beautifully fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with a delicate salad of peekytoe crab; the tomato gazpacho on the side made an excellent dipping sauce, transforming the flowers into first-class finger food.
While it might seem excessive to add side dishes to a five-course tasting menu, don’t miss the polenta fries—DePersio’s take on the famous chickpea fries at Jean Georges. He uses a rich chicken stock in his polenta, and serves the hefty fries, cut like lumber, beautifully crisped, creamy inside, with an obscenely rich gorgonzola fonduta.
I was expecting more over-the-top richness from Chatham cod with butternut squash risotto, but the fresh Jersey corn mixed with the rice gave the dish a sweet, refreshing pop. The cod, from waters off Massachusetts, tasted like it had lived a carefree, happy life.
The attentive servers know the food inside out, and can help you navigate the menu, which is particularly helpful on Tuesdays, when the inclusion of a “traditional” menu of Italian-American classics creates a glut of options. Desserts are not especially Italian, which is okay by me. Cynthia DePersio’s heady, homey, peanut butter and chocolate parfait is topped with nicely toasted marshmallow brûlée, and I’d take it over tiramisù or biscotti any day. Whether I have the tasting menu or order à la carte, I’m saving the better stuff in my wine rack for my next trip to Fascino.