Rare in Little Falls is a casual steak house. My first dinner here, I counted two male diners in t-shirts tucking into T-bones. Locals like the restaurant’s informality. In Rare’s second year of operation, 2008, NJM readers named it Best New Restaurant, North Jersey.
Father and son Gregory Polimeni Sr. and Jr.—partners in Cedar Grove’s Il Tulipano catering hall—opened Rare in a longtime Little Falls restaurant space. The Polimenis renovated. Now patrons enter through a 36-seat bar area with four large screens trained on ESPN. The screens are not visible from the 64-seat dining area. The more elegant, 44-seat wine-cellar dining room is open Friday and Saturday nights.
Rare has evolved since it opened. It is still a steak house, and a very good one, with a gracious staff and prime, house-aged beef priced about 15 percent less than in New York. But Rare is also a seafood place and an Italian trattoria. Versatile executive chef Corradino “Dino” Suriano is up to the task. He emigrated from Abruzzo in central Italy to Paterson at age 13 “and made pizza pies through high school,” he says. Suriano earned a diploma from New York Restaurant School, and he and his brother Elio ran a Montclair restaurant, Corso 98. Elio took over Corso 98 in 2008 when Dino left to work for the Polimenis at Il Tulipano.
“I cook a big menu here,” Dino admits, “but it’s all the best ingredients—house-aged steaks, fresh fish and the Italian food I grew up with.” Generously portioned, too.
I commenced my Rare meals with seafood, “like most of our diners,” says the chef. Rare’s simply prepared, impeccably fresh seafood is sourced mainly from Madison Seafood, a Newark wholesaler. “We get everything Jersey in season,” says Suriano. “Striped bass, black sea bass, monkfish, Cape May oysters and always clams.” Suriano’s classic Neapolitan linguine with white clam sauce is a paragon of minimalism, with a dozen Jersey clams, garlic, olive oil and a dusting of red pepper. Rare’s crab cake, a delicious 6-ounce beauty, is virtually all Chesapeake Bay lump crabmeat with a bit of shallot, pepper, mayo and Dijon mustard. Suriano regards it as a signature dish. House-smoked salmon is silken, with an herbaceous, applewood-smoke taste. But the menu’s lone sushi dish, a tuna-and-crab roll, was spongy and bland.
Rare serves a steak house’s traditional seafood starters, including crab or shrimp cocktail, clams casino, and raw-bar style platters of oysters or mixed seafood. If you demand an iceberg salad with blue-cheese dressing, Rare has you covered.
Suriano’s mostly house-made pastas are served in appetizer or entrée portions. Suriano employs fresh Jersey plum tomatoes for his red sauces; out of season, he uses canned San Marzanos from Naples. Fettuccine Bolognese is blanketed with an expertly made, tomato-based ragù of beef, veal and pork. But the house-made pancetta on Rare’s rigatoni amatriciana lacked the smoky bacon flavor that is this recipe’s calling card.
Rare’s main event is still its steak, cooked precisely to order. Most steaks are wet-aged between 21 and 28 days. The tastily marbled New York strip ($26) and the tender, 10-ounce filet mignon ($29) are not aged in order to offer diners a lower-priced meat option.
Like many steak houses, Rare’s highest-end, highest-priced steak ($79) is its 48-ounce porterhouse for two. It’s broiled at 900 degrees, then brushed with garlic- and herb-spiked olive oil and flashed under the broiler for 15 seconds “to give it that sizzle when it comes to the table,” says Suriano. Call it a carnivore’s carnival. Rare’s juicy, 28-ounce cowboy steak, or rib chop, is more marbled than the porterhouse but shares its deep, aged-beef flavor.
Rare’s house-smoked applewood bacon, garden-fresh creamed spinach and truffle oil-tossed fries make fine accompaniments. But my favorite side is sautéed long hot peppers, on the menu at the request of Gregory Sr., who is from Calabria, “where they love spicy food,” says Suriano. The dish’s sliced, Jersey-grown, “long green Italian hots” require only a sauté in garlic and olive oil. They won’t win any fiery chilé-eating contests in Albuquerque, but they’re the most peppery steak house side I’ve ever encountered—and one of the most welcome.
Rare offers meat eaters chunky veal chops and flavorful racks of lamb as well. And a number of chicken and seafood entrées are intended “for parties of two where the man wants a steak but the lady wants to eat lighter,” says Greg Jr.
Suriano does his fish fillets and chicken two ways: either lightly grilled with engaging sides (smothered leeks with the wild salmon, toasted garlic with the chicken breasts), or Italian-style (shrimp scampi, chicken pizzaiola). Ordering decisions are further complicated by Suriano’s intriguing daily specials like osso buco with saffron risotto, pan-seared organic pork chops and house-made fennel sausage or garlic cotecchino.
Desserts, made fresh daily in the Il Tulipano pastry kitchen of Frank Malak, transcend the usual steak house cheesecake and apple pie. Nut-strewn carrot cake delivers rich cream-cheese frosting; citrus panna cotta seduces with an exotic orange aroma; and gelati flaunt creative, but not outré, flavors like pumpkin.
You won’t find tiramisu at most steak houses, but you will at Rare.