Saluté Brick Oven Bistro in Montclair has a look—and taste—intended to suggest an Italian farmhouse. Good things do come out of that oven, Pat Tanner writes in her review, but not everything would do an actual Italian farmhouse proud.
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Gerry Cerrigone is on a roll. Saluté, the winsome Italian spot he owns with partner Robert Gaccione, was a hit with Montclair locals from the day it opened in October 2010. A year later the team spawned Fin Raw Bar & Kitchen just a few doors up the block, and it, too, has received a warm welcome. Cerrigone, who started as a busboy at Il Tulipano in Cedar Grove at age 13, has owned six restaurants over the last two decades. “I’ve got cabernet and restaurants in my blood,” he says.
Cerrigone labels the fare and design of Saluté as “Italian farmhouse” and is responsible for the menu, the recipes and even the interior design. So why “bistro” and not “osteria” or even “trattoria?” “One of the top Italian restaurants in town is Osteria Giotto,” he says, “and I didn’t want to look like I was competing with them. Plus, ‘bistro’ allows more flexibility. I can use nontraditional ingredients like panko and sesame oil, and I can incorporate French technique.”
His team does exactly that to good effect in dishes like tender hearts of long-stemmed artichokes, halved, dusted with panko and garlic, and roasted in the brick oven. They rest on a thin white-wine sauce that’s perfect for mopping up with the country breads that arrive at the table at the start of the meal, along with a ramekin of excellent eggplant caponata, a spread based on Cerrigone’s grandmother’s recipe. Also from the brick oven comes a special of whole roasted Cornish hen accompanied by perfectly roasted green beans and purple fingerling potatoes.
Other winners from the brick oven include the charred octopus starter with white beans, oil-cured black olives, tomatoes and fingerling wedges. Another triumph is the veal meatball sliders with melted mozzarella on a toasted roll.
Many of the dishes belong more to the Italian-American repertoire than to an Italian farmhouse. Sometimes these work, such as pennoni (giant penne) with tiny meatballs, hard-boiled eggs and bits of mortadella in a satisfying sweet-tart ragù. Sometimes they’re clunky, as in the lumaconi. Here, pasta the shape of oversize snail shells (cooked perfectly al dente, as are all pastas here) sits barren atop a garlic-wine broth that, while flavorful, is too thin to cling. Instead, it cavorts at the bottom of the bowl with good fennel sausage that’s not so much crumbled as it is hacked into raggedy hunks. Chard and ceci beans, promised in the menu description, put in the merest of cameos. This dish and several others—including fedelini with clams in tomato-wine broth—are marred by slices of oversize garlic cloves or out-of-control saltiness, or both.
The sizeable menu breaks down equally into memorable winners, clumsy misses and okay middle-of-the-roaders. Middling choices include, surprisingly, burrata—the creamy-centered mozzarella—here with speck and fresh tomatoes, and a gorgeous, pear-shaped arancino (rice ball) that is pleasantly cheesy but too dense. That’s a shame, because its tomato-cream sauce is an elegant touch (albeit not one you’re likely to come across in an Italian farmhouse).
In some cases, flaws seem to be caused by mistimings on the part of the kitchen or by faulty communication between servers and the kitchen. Risotto with porcini, shiitake, pecorino and truffle oil has inherently good flavor, and the rice is cooked well, but our plate arrived at room temperature, a skin already forming. On one visit, three of four starters arrived, then three of four entrées, with a too-long wait for the stragglers.
The staff exudes pleasantness. All remain unflappable even when the restaurant is inundated, as it is on weekends. On one visit, our server was a fount of good recommendations, among which were crostini topped with mild gorgonzola and red grapes, and a special pistachio cake with pistachio ice cream—a creation of the talented pastry chef, Marie Coviello, formerly of One If By Land in Manhattan. We also relished her ricotta cheesecake and an apple-pecan cake.
The noise factor cannot be denied. In good weather you can opt for sidewalk tables, or tables that abut the sidewalk when the French doors are flung open.
Cerrigone has transformed an old, high-ceilinged commercial storefront into a set designer’s idea of an Italian farmhouse. Wallboard has been stripped away to expose brick, lath and clay. Bushel baskets of fresh produce jut from walls, attached at their bases. A stack of firewood climbs up one wall, and a shabby-chic assortment of brown/rusty artifacts cover the walls. The overall effect, though, feels forced.
In sum, Saluté is a bit of a poseur in food and decor, but like all successful poseurs, it does have its winning ways.