Opening his fifth restaurant, onetime whiz kid Michael Cetrulo combines veteran know-how with youthful brio.
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What, I asked myself, is a line cook doing in the dining room? In a crimson T-shirt and white apron, the cook was talking to servers and chatting with customers. Muscular, medium height, with dark hair and a boyish face, he looked too young and footloose to be Michael Cetrulo, chef and proprietor of this new Montclair BYO, Scala del Nonna.
I’d never met Cetrulo or seen his photo, but somehow I had a mental image of him as silver haired and aloof. Based on what? That Scala del Nonna is his fifth restaurant? That his first—the chaotically crowd-pleasing Il Mondo Vecchio in Madison—opened in 1991, when this cook, by my reckoning, would have been about 10? That his well-regarded flagship, Scalini Fedeli in Chatham (1995), is formal, French-influenced and molto upscale? That its equally well-regarded twin, Scalini Fedeli in Manhattan’s Tribeca (1999), occupies the lovely, vaulted-ceiling space where Bouley got its start? That his Jersey City outpost, Porto Leggero (2004), is also quite swank?
Probably all the above. But when no imperious chef in monogrammed jacket burst from the kitchen to haul this upstart back to his post, an old Rodney Dangerfield joke sprang to mind: “‘Who’s that woman I saw you with?’ That’s no woman, that’s my wife!”
Well, that was no line cook. That, a server informed me, was Cetrulo himself. Now it made sense. The food we were eating was steeped in Italian tradition, but not stifled by it. Here was veteran polish and youthful verve in an appetizer special of ocean scallops gently braised in butter and thyme and served over fennel, butternut squash and shiitake mushrooms in a ravishing prosecco-orange-saffron sauce. Here was deeply flavorful puréed lentil soup with truffled raviolini. Here, too, was a plate of mussels as brash as an owner greeting guests in a T-shirt and apron. In shells as big as thumbs, the plump, tender specimens arrived under a shower of chopped fennel, leeks and bits of tomato from the heady pan-roasting broth.
Everything suggested a happy marriage of experience and exuberance. So did the space itself. Church Street’s broad sidewalks make it a magnet, a pleasant promenade lined with shops, eateries and a multiplex. In this enviable enclave, 32 Church has been an ugly duckling à l’orange. Locals remember when it was Taro, an attempt at Asian fusion. There were other short-lived incarnations. Always, the interior felt dim and gloomy, despite its full-width front windows and two-story ceiling.
Scala del Nonna may at last banish those memories. Cetrulo kept the dark wood floors, but offset them with a sparkling white interior and elegant gray upholstery. The new feeling of spaciousness and style owes much to the vaulted ceiling his contractor urged him to install. (Cetrulo also had a vaulted ceiling built at Scalini Fedeli in Chatham when he took over that space.) Equally important are the banquettes—not just along the walls, but down the center, reducing seats from a possible 70 to an uncrowded 50, plus another 30 in the overlooking mezzanine.
“I was trying to do something special, because it’s Montclair,” Cetrulo told me later by phone. Raised in Wayne, he lives in Essex Fells, a short drive from Church Street. “I eat in Montclair often. There are so many good chefs, it’s almost a mini-Manhattan.”
Cetrulo is 46, meaning he was a precocious 23 when he opened Il Mondo Vecchio (“the old world”). But he was not a neophyte. Since he was 12 or 13, his chef father, Joseph, had been taking him to work. “I washed dishes, did prep,” he said. “That’s when I first got the bug.” Like both his parents, Cetrulo learned to cook from Joseph’s mother, Concetta. Scalini Fedeli (“little steps of faith”) sprang from Cetrulo’s travels in France and Italy. Scala del Nonna (“in grandmother’s footsteps”) is a more personal tribute. The cooking ranges across Italy, but honors
Concetta, the daughter of Neapolitan immigrants, in its preference for what Cetrulo calls “cleaner flavors, less sauce, not too many distractions on the plate.”
All chefs sing hosannas to simplicity these days, but layered flavors and toothsome textures are not so simply achieved. Cetrulo’s pappardelle with osso buco ragù, for example, is subtly sparked with finely chopped, brined cherry peppers, orange zest, black olives and a touch of cream. The marrow from the shanks is stirred back into the sauce. The pasta itself is dried, from Del Verde. You can buy it in the supermarket, but you might not cook it as perfectly as he does. Rigatoni, often leaden, in his rendition were perfectly al dente and lusciously infused with flavors of guanciale, smoked pancetta, tomato and rosemary. He uses DeCecco dried. Ravioli and gnocchi are the only shapes the kitchen makes fresh. “From dried pasta, you get a certain bite that I enjoy,” Cetrulo said. I’ll hop on that bandwagon.
Among entrées, pignoli-crusted salmon and grilled branzino were cooked with finesse and paired with enhancing sauces and vegetables. Cetrulo hews closest to tradition in meat dishes like chicken scarpariello, veal scaloppine with lemon and capers and bistecca (filet mignon) with gorgonzola sauce or giambotta style. But even there, he goes his own way.
“I get in trouble with the American Italians I grew up with, because their giambotta is usually just garlic, potatoes, mushrooms, vinegar peppers,” he said. “Mine has a jazzed-up sauce from my travels to Italy. It has veal stock, beef stock, sherry and a hint of tomato, capers and Worcestershire. But it’s become a signature. People come back for it.”
Desserts, too, added welcome bespoke touches. Cetrulo’s cannoli turn the usual lackluster shell into a crackly tuile flavored with orange zest and juice. Inside goes lemon curd mixed with fresh, chopped blood oranges and raspberries and a bit of mascarpone. The crunchy walnut torte, adapted from a recipe by famed baker Nick Malgieri, is heaven for people like me who love nuts but eschew the goo in pecan pies. Cetrulo developed his warm flourless chocolate cake from a Gotham Bar and Grill recipe. “It took about six months of experimenting to get the texture the way I wanted it, very creamy,” he said. I’m glad he took the time. It’s one of the best I’ve had.
When Cetrulo opens a new restaurant, he’ll be in the kitchen virtually every day for the first six months. “After that, you need a great team,” he said. His Scala co-owners are family, literally or figuratively. Sister Sally Gildea, the general manager, has worked at Scalini Chatham for 15 years. Nephew Anthony Jugan, 26, the chef de cuisine, has cooked in Cetrulo’s restaurants for six years. The fourth partner, Emad Armanious, has been a server and captain with Cetrulo for 15 years.
End of May, the clock strikes midnight. Cetrulo will not be at Scala del Nonna every day. One or more of the other partners will be. Need you rush over right now? Will the carriage turn into a pumpkin? I’m betting this is no fairy tale.