Puffy, rosemary-flecked pizza dough—better known as focaccia—is hardly a showy dish to name a trattoria after. But modesty is one of the many charms of La Focaccia in Summit.
Chef/owner Joe Bitici has recreated a classic trattoria of Tuscany. Often full (and loud, with closely spaced tables), La Focaccia features jacketed waiters and white-clothed tables. Its menu is strong on house-made pastas; grilled, sauced meats; and fresh seafood.
Bitici, 56, came from Chianti in Tuscany at age 14. First stop was Little Italy in Manhattan, where “all four of my older brothers got jobs waitering,” he says. “In no time, I was a dishwasher.” Bitici graduated from Jefferson High in Elizabeth and opened a series of Italian restaurants with his brothers. He was the cook. “My mother and my nonna cooked all day at home and even made their own pasta,” he says. “Before I knew anything else, I knew what was a good marinara.”
Bitici, now a Summit resident, opened La Focaccia in ’93. “My son Brian manages, my daughter Heidi does the books, my wife Barbara does the flowers,” he says. “And my brothers come to my restaurant.” (Brother John owns Fiorino’s, also in Summit. “But we don’t compete,” says Bitici, “because he has a liquor license.”)
The restaurant’s namesake focaccia is served sometimes with rosemary-infused extra virgin olive oil, sometimes with Bitici’s irresistible sun-dried tomato aioli. Tomatoes in summer were showcased in La Focaccia’s Tuscan bread and tomato soup, one of the simplest and most appealing of two dozen starters. Next my table savored a Jersey beet salad with toasted walnuts and Coach Farms goat cheese, but we merely picked at the antipasto platter’s bland and watery marinated vegetables.
La Focaccia’s pillowy gnocchi, a pride of the house, are lushly composed with potato, fresh ricotta from Abruzzi, “and a secret ingredient,” says Bitici. (I think it’s sage.) The gnocchi is sauced with more of the ricotta, Parmigiano, Jersey sweet peas and not quite enough crisped prosciutto de Parma. Simple linguine with white clam sauce was perfection one night, short on garlic another.
Seafood risotto one night was soupy and gummy. Another night, a shrimp risotto with sweet peas and truffle oil, the shrimp cut into bite-sized pieces, was pure joy. Bitici’s black spaghetti, deepened in flavor and hue by squid ink, was expertly made, with sparkling-fresh rock shrimp, calamari, clams and mussels in a slightly peppery marinara.
The vast menu hews to the something-for-everyone school. “We have a lot of regulars who come once or twice a week,” says Bitici. “I like to give them a lot of choices.” From Tuscany comes a cioppino—Italian bouillabaisse in a tomato sauce—featuring fish and seafood added sequentially so as not to overcook. Bitici’s sirloin—a 20- to 22-ounce boneless cut from Wotiz Meat in Passaic—is steakhouse good. It’s dry aged for 21 days, conservatively seasoned with Telicherry pepper and kosher salt, and grilled in an 1,800-degree broiler.
La Focaccia’s marinated game hen is a rare bird. This big-breasted, succulent young chicken steeps overnight in garlic, olive oil and herbs. Then it’s lightly grilled, finished in the oven with pan juices and served whole, with tender meat and a crisp skin. I was not as impressed with the house’s pricey ($26) yet pedestrian housemade sausage sampler: a hot sausage that was not; a fine-textured, innocuous sweet sausage; and a chunky cotecchino with little flavor.
Desserts are made in house by Bitici, with the exception of tasty gelati from Nasto’s in Newark. With perceptible espresso flavor, the tiramisu was a pleasing version of this cocoa-powdered cliché. I’d skip the chocolate dome and its syrupy, over-soft coating of Austrian chocolate over retro chocolate mousse. But ask your waiter to reserve you a slice of Bitici’s rich, faintly lemony ricotta cheesecake.