A lot of the metaphorical buzz around Westwood’s new Osteria Crescendo hovers over the head of head chef Robbie Felice. But as summer approaches (think long evenings, languorous suppers, Happy Hours dripping in late day golden sunshine), our focus shifts to Osteria’s Italian-centric cocktail program and beverage director Joshua Strauss. A passionate, skilled craftsman—and Wayne native—Strauss has an infectious enthusiasm for things with intimidating-sounding Italian names. And with his drinks list at Osteria Crescendo, he’s forging a union between scrupulously edited craft cocktail precision and romantically idiosyncratic, product-driven Italian flavors. We recently caught up with Strauss ahead of service to find out what it’s like at the helm of one of Jersey’s most exciting young restaurants, what “Italian cocktails” means in the land of The Sopranos, and what Italian bar ingredients we should fall in love with this summer.
Table Hopping: You’re at the helm of a pretty unique program. How did you get into bartending?
JS: Somewhat coincidentally, actually. I spent about 10 years working in special education. It’s great, but a very emotionally demanding field, and I take whatever I do very seriously, so I was looking for a change of pace. I took an internship in the music licensing industry in the Financial District. In the meantime, I got into hospitality. A friend of mine was opening a restaurant called Cowan’s Public in Nutley, an awesome craft cocktail-beer concept. He asked me to come work with him [in 2015]. Within months, I started managing. I guess the hospitality industry came very naturally to me. Flash forward several years, I’m helping open restaurants. I found passion behind the bar and kind of ran with it.
I left Cowan’s [in 2016] to help open a restaurant in Bloomfield called Essex Junction and from there I kind of bounced around, reveled in the craziness and excitement of opening a restaurant, building bar programs. That really allowed me to develop my experience in beverage. I left there, bartended a bunch of different places, and eventually helped open Ani Ramen in Jersey City [in 2016].
JH: How did you and Robbie Felice meet?
JS: I’ve known Robbie for a very long time. Robbie had come in while I was at Ani and really liked what I was doing. Basically, one day [in] early September of 2018, as he was planning on opening Osteria Crescendo, he called me up and said I was coming to work with him.
TH: Were you nervous about jumping into a new concept?
JS: I was super pumped. Robbie’s just such an invested, innovative chef. It’s been great, too, to have someone with such a creative palate. I bounce cocktail ideas off him constantly. He always has some wacky idea I never would have thought of, or he’ll suggest an Italian ingredient I’ve never considered using and end up totally elevating the cocktail.
TH: Speaking of Italian bar ingredients, they’re not uncommon (Campari, Aperol, Fernet Branca). But do you view them differently now that they’re the focal point?
JS: I look at them completely differently. I never worked in an Italian restaurant before. Going back to Ani Ramen, obviously a Japanese-influenced program, I was lucky enough to train under Kenta Goto. He’s since opened up his own place, called Bar Goto. He initially consulted on the bar program at Ani Ramen and I learned a lot about Japanese cocktails, their subtlety, simplicity. And oddly enough, I’ve found a lot of similarities in Italian cocktails. There’s a thoughtful subtlety and elegance in both styles.
TH: How so?
JS: Simplicity turns out to be a common theme in the history of classic Italian cocktails. Take a cocktail like the Negroni, one of the most well-balanced cocktails on the planet. It’s three ingredients. The Garibaldi is another famous Italian drink and that’s two ingredients—Campari and OJ. I have a cocktail on the menu, the Bei Sogni, that’s a riff on a Garibaldi. I took those two ingredients and added honey and thyme to give it a bit of sweetness and herbaciousness, and egg white to give it frothiness. Basically, I took the Garibaldi and made it this sort of bittersweet, adult creamsicle.
TH: What about some less familiar Italian ingredients on your menu—Malfy con Limone gin? Italicus?
JS: Malfy is really cool, made in Italy, kind of a softer gin. They have a bunch of different infusions. The one I’m using in our seasonal Gin and Tonic is “con Limone,” which has a subtle floral lemon note to it. The Italian lemon notes are really authentic. And Italicus—I’m in love, so deeply in love with Italicus.
TH: That’s a lot of passion! Why in love?
JS: Having never worked in an Italian restaurant before, it’s been really exciting—a challenge—to learn about ingredients. Italicus is classified as a Rosolio. It’s an Italian liqueur made from rose petals, so it’s sweet-yet-botanical, with hints of rose and lavender and bergamot. It’s based on a recipe that dates back to, like, the 15th Century. Rosolio practically vanished for centuries until this guy, Giuseppe Gallo, launched Italicus. I love it. I use it to add both sweet and floral elements to the cocktail list.
TH: Any other less common Italian ingredients we can look forward to?
JS: I’ve also been experimenting with Mirto, an Italian liqueur from Sardinia. It’s made from myrtle berries, which are sweet, but also taste like juniper, allspice, and pine, giving it a slightly spicy flavor.
TH: What about Italian drinking culture? Is that something you’re trying to cultivate at Osteria Crescendo?
JS: It’s something I definitely encourage, having a larger variety of amari and apertivos on the backbar. An after-dinner sip, an after-dinner neat pour of amaro, even to get your stomach stimulated. But because of the success of Viaggio, a lot of people come in and know what we’re about. They come in more knowledgeable than I expected, as far as Italian wines and Italian classic cocktails, so we have a lot of fun conversations with a lot of our guests.
TH: Osteria Crescendo’s only been open since April. Is it too early to ask what’s coming up?
JS: We’re growing. I think Viaggio was like, the journey. That was kind of Robbie’s journey through Italy, learning and growing, developing his style of cooking. And Crescendo kind of translates to growth. So we’re exploring a lot of different ideas.
You can try Italicus for yourself in Strauss’s summer-ready Hudson Holler (with tequila, cucumber, and mint). Try one of his other drinks at Osteria Crescendo anytime after 5pm, Tuesday through Saturday, and starting at 3pm on Sunday. 36 Jefferson Avenue, 201-722-1900.Click here to leave a comment