It was noon Saturday, and chef Francesco Palmieri was philosophical.
In a few hours he would serve dinner for the last time at his pioneering and idiosyncratic restaurant, the Orange Squirrel, and then he would shut it down.
Palmieri had been 39 when he opened “the Squirrel,” as he calls it, in November, 2008, in Bloomfield, his hometown.
Very few people knew it would be the last supper at the restaurant, which had brought high-level food and drink to a dull commercial stretch of Bloomfield Avenue and been a beloved hangout of many area chefs.
The Squirrel won three stars from NJM in March, 2009, and went on to receive Critics’ Picks and one Top 25 citation in several August Best Restaurants issues. In 2013, Palmieri defeated three other chefs to win an edition of the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, and took home $20,200. He served as president of the Montclair Food & Wine Festival in 2015 and ’16.
Palmieri was keeping his emotions in check as he sat down to speak with me.
What’s happening? Why is the Orange Squirrel closing so suddenly?
It just happened in the last week or so. The building is being positioned to be sold. And then my next endeavor came together. It really is the perfect thing. But it’s very difficult, emotionally; the family we created here—the staff, the diners, the community—it’s just very difficult. But we are excited about the next chapter.
What will that be?
We can’t let the cat out of the bag. It won’t be too far away. It will be open to the public, definitely. We’re staying in North Jersey. It definitely will be a place for our fans, our guests, our family.
So, eight years—over and out for the Squirrel.
We opened November 11, 2008, when the recession was at its peak. We set ourselves on an industrial street, and I think we paved the way here. We took a fresh look at food, and back then it was tough to find food of our caliber here. It was really refreshing to look out into our dining room and see such interesting groups of diners. The clientele was so diverse. The experience was so personal and so connective. I mean, I’m cooking and people are putting my food into their bodies. Eight years!
A restaurant’s life is measured in dog years.
Absolutely! Well, we decided to leave as we came. Other places may want to go out with a boom, but we want just to serve dinner. We didn’t want to put pressure on our dedicated guests who might think, ‘Oh, we have to go! We have to get in!’ Hopefully, they will find me in my next endeavor.
Which you said isn’t far away. When will it open?
It’s going to happen soon, and it’s going to be a bit complicated. In the next month or two, we hope. We feel like as soon as we’re ready, we will be able to scream at the mountain top.
Meanwhile, you are cooking and serving the last dinner here.
The Squirrel is very persistent, and it has its own drive. It always will be in our hearts. When we opened, in the recession, I just put my feet forward and kept marching. It tested me. But it all worked out. We were fortunate. We had great people who came here and saw our philosophy. You can never have a crystal ball. But we will move forward. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I will put my personal stamp on it.
Note to readers: What did the Orange Squirrel mean to you? Share with us your meals and memories – and what you hope Palmieri will do next.Click here to leave a comment