Nola by Brian, Stockton
A food or music lover sees “NoLa” and instantly thinks, N’awlins, y’all! Chef/owner Brian Held surely knows that, but don’t be disappointed that his NoLa stands for North of Lambertville, the town where his estimable French restaurant, Brian’s, is located. NoLa has a tongue-in-cheek name, and that’s where the excitement lies—on tongue and taste buds. Held and chef de cuisine Alida Saxon (formerly of Rosemont’s short-lived NJM Top 25, the Pass) launched their BYO with a Mediterranean riff on French fare, but lately they’re tilting Italian. “I want to be known almost as a pasta house,” says Held. His nutty sweet potato agnolotti with almond brown butter and his ravioli in lamb ragù could make that happen. Rustic entrées like braised veal cheeks with rosemary-mustard cream vary with the season. Come summer, they can be enjoyed on the patio Held is planning. 18 Bridge Street; 609-460-4863.—DH
Nuovo Cucina Napoletana, Nutley
After owning by-the-slice pizzerias and helping launch the popular Ah’ Pizz in Montclair, Chris Delisio thought he would “take time off” from restaurants. Then the lifelong Nutley resident saw a former deli for rent in his hometown, “and it pulled me back in.” Having a background in construction, Delisio, 42, “basically designed and built it myself.” The airy room is inviting, its signature element a huge menu board with calligraphic entries in colored chalk by Delisio’s girlfriend, Nicole Simeone.
Nuovo Cucina opened in September. Delisio soon saw he needed to strike a balance between his heart’s desire—traditional Neapolitan pizza and cooking—and his customers’ desire for thin- rather than chewy-crust pizza and old favorites like chicken parm and penne vodka. “We put a flair on penne vodka with smoked pancetta,” he says. He modified his pizza dough. “We try to keep it old school, but we never say no.”
Turns out Delisio has won converts with dishes like bucatini carbonara made the old-school way, without cream; pork short rib ragù over paccheri pasta; and “broken lasagna,” the sheets sliced, cooked al dente and tossed with roasted tomato béchamel topped with fresh ricotta. Walk in any night, see a sea of happy faces. 633 Franklin Avenue; 973-798-2426.—RS
Chris Atamian and Alexandria Mahon, the couple behind Porcini, have channeled their passion for each other into a trattoria so romantic that it’s not unprecedented to see a guy push back his chair, get down on one knee and propose to his beloved. Such effusions delight Atamian, 29, the chef, and Mahon, 23, the hostess and general manager.
“We’re so fortunate to be able to accomplish our goals at such a young age,” says Mahon. Right out of the Culinary Education Center at Brookdale Community College, Atamian landed at Bay Avenue Trattoria in Highlands, where he spent seven years as sous chef. Mahon worked the front of house there, from age 15 until it closed in 2012, a casualty of Sandy. Chef Joe Romanowski died in 2013. Romanowski and his wife, Maggie, “are great mentors and were our inspiration to own our own restaurant,” Mahon attests. Atamian later worked at Nicholas in Red Bank and Fresh in Highlands before opening Porcini in July 2015.
The 44-seat BYO woos you with soft lighting, muted colors and candles on every table, “because that’s how we enjoy eating dinner in our home,” Mahon says. Everything from pasta to gelato is made in-house and—as in the signature porcini risotto—delivers big flavors with finesse.
“Chris’s favorite thing to cook is fish, so we have a lot of seafood on our menu,” Mahon says. That includes a lovely grilled organic Scottish salmon with spinach, tomato, basmati rice and a white wine-lemon vinaigrette ($27), and a market fish of the week.
Seafood aside, another standout is wild mushroom fettuccine with Marsala cream sauce and bacon ($20). The biggest seller is braised pork osso buco with maple-whisky sauce, sweet potato hash and garlic broccoli rabe ($29). “It’s common that we sell out of pork on Saturday nights,” Mahon says. What Porcini never runs out of is passion, on the plate or in the atmosphere. 168 Bay Avenue; 732-291-3080.—TLG
Chef Rob Ubhaus says he didn’t know redux means brought back or returned when he opened his restaurant in September. Redux is his shorthand for reduction, which he scribbles on masking tape when labeling containers of reductions for sauces. He chose the name “to convey a reduction of formality” in this, his third BYO in Madison. The first, Resto, was haute cuisine; the second, Rob’s Bistro, was casual French. So Redux is redux, but of a fun and creative sort.
Start with cheese or charcuterie; move on to “Bites” like the rock-shrimp cocktail or bacon-fried mixed nuts; then “Small Plates” like seared foie gras with lentils or a brilliant, crunchy-juicy take on spring rolls filled with fresh spinach, blue cheese, pecans and beets. “Plates” ($18-$23) are substantial and satisfying; they range from flat-iron steak with turnips and béarnaise sauce to chicken confit with Parisienne gnocchi to delicata squash with pearl pasta and Bucheron goat cheese. Eat at Redux—you’ll want to return. 3 Central Avenue; 973-845-6263.—EL
Slamwich Scratch Kitchen, Madison
Sam Freund and George Braun IV have been friends since they met at Warren Hills Middle School in Washington Township. Freund became a fine-dining chef, Braun a highly skilled butcher. Four years ago they wound up in Colorado, wanting to do their own thing. Realizing they were “Jersey boys at heart,” says Braun, they came home, pooled their savings, maxed out their credit cards and leased a “funky, gutted, ’40s diner” on the edge of downtown, next to a cemetery.
Bad omen? Not at all. With no money for ads, the pals fill their rickety tables on the warmth of their welcome (Freund’s mom, Linda, runs the register) and the bounty of their overstuffed “slamwiches.” They do make everything from scratch, from pastrami to smoked brisket, duck confit, Colorado green chili, sriracha aioli and smoked mayo. A BYO serving breakfast and lunch, Slamwich closes at 6 pm (3 pm, Sundays), so go early. And often. 143 Main Street; 973-520-8957.—EL
South + Pine, Morristown
Leia Gaccione grew up in Passaic cooking for her brother and hard-working single mom. After culinary school, she rose to chef de cuisine and executive chef at five Bobby Flay restaurants and assisted him in three of his Iron Chef battles. “One thing I learned from him,” she says, “is you have to be in the kitchen, involved in everything and tasting everything, to make sure you’re making good food.” Her seasonal, New American menu at South + Pine, the BYO she opened in May 2015, is better than good. Dishes like Chatham cod with potato-chorizo chowder; smoked duck sliders; and egg noodles with kale pesto, delicata squash and goat cheese are lively, delicious and distinctive. To leave without having her chocolate-stout pudding with malt whipped cream and pretzel bits is recommended only for the perversely abstemious. 90 South Street (at Pine); 862-260-9700.—EL