Chef Todd Villani fills Terre à Terre (French for “down to earth”) with ethereal delights.
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These days, every chef’s mantra is fresh, local, seasonal. Todd Villani learned what it meant when he was about four and growing up in Rutherford. “My grandmother Carmela,” he told me in a phone interview after my visits, “rounded me up to go looking for dandelion leaves and shoots. Everyone else considered dandelions weeds. But she was from Naples. To her, dandelions were delicate greens for tonight’s salad or tomorrow’s soup. That’s when I understood that food is something that grows, that is fresh and good for you. It doesn’t have to come in a package.”
It’s true that Villani obtains almost half his ingredients from the Garden State and virtually all but North Atlantic fish and lobster from within a range of 300 miles. But what makes Terre à Terre special is less its farm-to-table ethos than the all-important stop the ingredients make en route—in the kitchen.
Take, for example, his marvelous lamb spring rolls. The lamb comes from Elysian Farms in Pennsylvania. The sauce is a tangy reduction of sweetened soy, lemongrass, ginger and sesame oil. The magic is not in where the ingredients come from but in what the chef does with them. The spring roll is not fried; it’s served moist and cool. Villani forms a supple cylinder from braised pulled lamb, crushed peanuts and minced basil, scallion, bell pepper and carrot. These are wrapped in Swiss chard, then in velvety spring roll wrappers translucent from a short soak in cool water. Sprinkle with more crushed peanuts, and the result is an appetizer I am glad I don’t have to travel 300 miles for—though given everything else Villani and his sous chef, Brian McGackin, produce in their tiny kitchen, it just might be worth the trek.
Equally notable are his crispy whole artichoke hearts, complete with edible stems and papery petals. The hearts are stuffed with a ruddy mix of ground chorizo from Nicolosi Fine Foods in Union City and chèvre from Flint Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. Every bite combines crunchy and creamy, meat and dairy flavors. Villani has been serving it in different places since 2007. “I want to get away from it,” he said, “but I can’t. People love it.”
Villani, 41, lives in Carlstadt. The town, which looks both urban and suburban, has never been a dining destination. But Terre à Terre (French for “down to earth”) should give people looking for exciting food reason enough to go.
Villani opened this 50-seat BYO last October on a main street. The space previously housed Sal Anthony’s, a traditional red-sauce Italian.
“For the first couple months,” Villani told me, “locals would come in asking what kinds of parmigiana I made.” Intrigued by his gentle prices and BYO status, “they gave me a chance.” Now you need a reservation on Fridays and Saturdays. The dining room, with its hard surfaces, gets buzzy-loud when full. The 12 seats on the four-walled, roofless patio are quieter. One wall has a hanging herb garden. Another has a charming mural of grazing cows.
After graduating from Wayne Hills High School in 1991, Villani “learned the business by waitering” in many places. In 1996, he graduated from the International Culinary Center in New York. He spent most of 2002 cooking at a resort in Northern Greece. “That’s when I put my head into it,” he said. “I was making $25 a day, living on the beach and washing my clothes in a bucket.”
When he came back, he was hired as a sous chef to help open Chakra in Paramus. He lasted about seven months. “I had no business being a sous chef,” he admitted. “I wasn’t ready for it.”
Fortunately for him, he landed a job with Marcus Samuelsson cooking for the World Yacht dining cruises around Manhattan.
From the renowned Ethiopian-Swedish chef, Villani said he learned “refined technique applied to comfort food.” A toothsome example is Terre à Terre’s sumac-seasoned crispy chicken (from Goffle Road Farm in Wyckoff). The dish combines a lush confited leg and thigh with a crisply sautéed breast and seasonal accompaniments—recently, spiced couscous, haricots verts and tarragon jus.
Under Samuelsson, Villani said, “I worked my way up from cook to executive sous chef. I soaked it up like a sponge. He’s demanding but fair, and it was a great experience.” Before opening Terre à Terre, Villani earned praise for his food at Park Avenue Bar & Grill in Union City. Now he’s his own boss.
A spring dish of green, radiator-shaped pasta (colored with nettles and ramps, from Sfoglini in Brooklyn) had an earthy topping of shiitake, chanterelle and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms from Shibumi Farm in Princeton. In an appealing June variation, Villani offered a gremolata-enriched polenta with roasted asparagus, foraged mushroom sauce and cèpe-dusted shrimp.
A Berkshire pork chop from Nicolosi was a standout. Villani smokes it over hickory chips in a contraption “that Marcus Samuelsson used to rig up.” Pan seared and finished in the oven, the meat was tender and just smoky enough. Sides of aromatic cardamom rice and a parsnip-and-apple brunoise (tiny cubes) provided perfect counterpoints.
Desserts are made by Little Ferry-based Melanie Ferrante, who worked for TV’s Cake Boss at Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken. She has a confident way with tricky recipes like fudge-sauced peanut-butter terrine, deeply flavored with both PB and chocolate. Also impeccable: Ferrante’s gossamer meringue cookies, chocolate tart and crème brûlée in seasonal variations.
Like many chefs, Villani long dreamed of opening his own restaurant. When his grandmother Carmela died in May 2013, at 96, she left him, he said, “a little money, enough to get me started.”
Various possibilities fell through. Then one day, coming home from a job tryout that didn’t go well, he got off the bus and saw a “for sale” notice in the window of Sal Anthony’s. “My grandmother had just passed, and I thought, This is probably a sign. So I pursued it.”
We can all be glad he did.
312 Hackensack Street