Dishes like eggplant rollatini and chicken parmigiana are as Jersey as Taylor ham on a roll, and almost as ubiquitous on menus. To stand out, an Italian restaurant either has to lift the staples to a level no nonna can match or personalize the latest trends from Italy. Sergio’s, an Italian bistro with operatic decor, tucked into a strip mall in Clifton, tries a third approach: Do a decent job with the familiar and excel with nightly specials that celebrate the imagination of chef/owner Sergio Mejia.
On the burgundy walls as you enter the dining room, saints, angels and cherubim greet you from huge classical-style paintings hanging in gilded frames. Billowing white drapes and golden chandeliers reinforce the impression that you are in for a night of masterpieces.
You won’t find most of those on the menu. An eggplant rollatini, well stuffed with herbed ricotta and nicely browned, lacked the seasoning needed to give its tomato sauce the requisite zing. Chicken parm was tender and bubbly with cheese, but its tomato sauce lacked any hint of oregano, basil or garlic. The light batter on a veal Francaise kept falling off the meat, and the sauce more resembled marsala than a lemony Francaise.
However, when the waiter comes to read you the nightly specials—and yes, he will read them, because there are too many even for him to remember—try to pay close attention. Mejia told me in an interview after my visits that he often presents as many as 20 a night. This is where you will find the gems.
Boneless short ribs with gnocchi were exquisite, with a pleasing and subtle flavor it took me a while to identify: allspice, Mejia later confirmed. With it came light, flavorful house-made gnocchi in a rewarding sauce made from the braising liquid.
I sympathized with our waiter, whose long recitation hit a few bumps along the way. What he described as short-rib ravioli with squash proved to be squash-filled ravioli with short rib. Still, the meat was delicious, and the autumnal spices in the short rib ragù perfectly braced us on a chilly evening. The house-made ravioli were filled with ricotta and butternut squash. A double cut stuffed pork chop, another special, was described as having a tarragon cream sauce. What arrived was unmistakably a thyme cream sauce.
I am a fan of cream sauce, and am happy to say that the thyme cream worked superbly with the char from the grill, though it did need a touch more acid to balance the lusciousness. Nonetheless, the meat was tender and the buttery bread stuffing was rich with autumn seasonings.
Despite the Italianate menu and decor, many of the specials show French, Spanish and American influences. A stuffed artichoke, for example, came with a classic French beurre blanc. A softball-sized milk pumpkin—stuffed with butternut squash, blue cheese, sausage and pine nuts and roasted—was beautifully presented, the lid jauntily perched on top. You could see delight in the faces of the many customers who ordered it when it was set before them. We were delighted as well, the flavors melding perfectly in every sweet-savory-salty bite.
Our waiter, reciting, eventually got to a snapper with macadamia crust and a coconut cream sauce. Caribbean cuisine at an Italian restaurant? I bit. It was quite successful, the fillet crisply crusted, the coconut cream animated with a subtle jerk-like seasoning and a balancing hit of lime juice. On the downside, it was served with standard steamed vegetables and a dome of steamed white rice that gave it a bit of a chain-restaurant look.
Mejia, a self-trained chef, looks to be in his early 30s. He opened Sergio’s in 2008. Last May he opened a second location, also called Sergio’s, in Lodi. “The décor, the menu, the concept, it is all Sergio,” he told me. “I like to mix and match cuisines. I like infusion. All the staff take part in the creations.”
Desserts were a crapshoot. Apple fritters were leaden. A dense pistachio cake was tasty, its icing sprinkled with ground pistachios. Yet the cake itself tasted more of almond paste than pistachio. A special of pecan pie “cigars” looked like deep-fried spring roll wrappers. Served in a martini glass with vanilla ice cream, it was pretty, but cloying.
What Sergio’s vast list of specials did not include were prices. Beware sticker shock. Appetizers were $15-to-$17; entrées averaged $29. Menu prices were a little less. Still, your best bet are the specials. They’re what the kitchen does best.