In Italian, due (pronounced DOO-ay) means two. The name fits this Ridgewood BYO well, and not just because it is owner Chris Tarta’s second restaurant. He is still chef/owner of Bella Campania in nearby Hillsdale, which he opened in 2002. But at Due, after almost a year of middling reviews and disappointed customers under a succession of kitchen teams, Tarta brought in a decorated veteran, Adam Weiss, for many years chef of Esty Street in Park Ridge and a two-time winner of the Ultimate Chef Bergen County competition (2013 and 2014). Now Tarta and Weiss, who became executive chef in April, form a dynamic duo at Due.
Weiss, 37, and Tarta, 35, revamped the menu. In a phone call after my visits, Weiss described the new style as “eclectic Italian, with modern twists and turns.” His spaghetti and meatballs, a prime example, is made with bucatini (like long, thick drinking straws) in an updated Sunday sauce of tender, smoky pork Bolognese topped with flavorful, fluffy-textured turkey meatballs and a dollop of pillowy herbed ricotta that Weiss makes from scratch. The dish is by turns hearty and light, familiar and new.
Weiss created what he called a fine-dining version of chicken Marsala. He pan sears a frenched chicken breast to crisp the skin and finishes it in the oven with velvety royal trumpet and hon shimeji mushrooms in chicken stock. The sauce combines the chicken jus with Marsala wine and a dab of garlic butter for a refined yet full-flavored dish, which comes with a side of “risotto” made from farro with green peas. It’s as fluffy as rice, but with nutty undertones.
Equally accomplished is his bone-in veal Milanese, made from a chop pounded to the size of a dinner plate. He dusts it with panko bread crumbs, pan fries it in olive oil and tops it with a baby arugula salad with pickled red onions, diced tomatoes and creamy, fresh mozzarella in a white balsamic vinaigrette drizzled with a dark balsamic glaze. The mozz is made by Tarta at Bella Campania. Its excellence, Weiss told me, motivated him to make his own ricotta.
My favorite dishes were those that, paradoxically, wandered farthest from Italian tradition and those that hewed to it completely. In the latter category was the most authentic Caesar salad I’ve encountered in years. If you think Caesar dressings have gotten increasingly wimpy over the years, you aren’t imagining things. But in Weiss’s dressing over romaine, the sine qua non ingredients—garlic, white anchovies and Parmigiano-Reggiano—were clear and present, yet perfectly harmonized. Perfection.
At the far-from-tradition extreme, Weiss created a creamy chowder special, a hearty and rustic melange of wood-grilled Jersey corn and braised dark-meat chicken with diced applewood-smoked bacon, Yukon gold potatoes and red bell peppers. Like all Due’s specials, this one was printed, with its price, on a card handed out with the menu.
On the regular menu, you see a lot of dish names enclosed in quotes. It’s Weiss’s way of telling you to expect the unexpected. One stunning example is his “shrimp and grits.” He calls it “a Southern American dish with Italian ingredients.” He grills five jumbo shrimp over a mix of woods carefully chosen to produce a specific smoky flavor. Meanwhile, fresh peaches, skinned and blanched, are grilled over the wood, then combined with the shrimp in a white balsamic barbecue sauce that’s Weiss’s take on North Carolina vinegar-based sauce. The shrimp and peaches are set over polenta enriched with mascarpone and kernels of grilled corn. “For a green component,” he said, “I add kale braised in house-made San Marzano tomato sauce.”
Other seafood dishes, while not as innovative, are just as rewarding. These include a starter of P.E.I. mussels with smoked bacon, peas and orzo in a tomato-garlic butter sauce, and red snapper fillet “Francaise” (his quotes; there is no batter on the fish) in lemon-caper butter sauce with smoky grilled asparagus, ribbons of soft zucchini and eggplant caponata.
Amid so much experimentation and creativity, a few dishes inevitably fall short. Cavatelli with white beans and vegetables (asparagus, roasted red peppers, spinach and artichokes) in basil pesto cream sounded luscious and distinctive, but came across surprisingly subdued. A dessert of fresh berries “misu” with mascarpone mousse and Chambord-soaked ladyfingers sounded stimulating, but was a snooze. Cinnamon-sugared zeppoli made with eclair-like dough—normally a light delight when still hot from the fryer—were filled with a sweet ricotta before frying that weighed them down for no net gain.
Other desserts soared. Key lime semifreddo parfait had a foundation of buttery graham-cracker crumbs zippy with lime zest, a midsection of tangy Key lime mousse mixed with dulce de leche (giving it a cocoa-ish color) and a roof of brown-sugar meringue torched to a brûlée-like crisp. Bittersweet chocolate-espresso pudding was equally gratifying.
Is there any life left in cannoli? Roaring in from the traditional end of the spectrum with something to prove, the absolute best cannoli I’ve had in ages of course had a crisp shell. But that filling, made with Weiss’s custom ricotta (smooth, not grainy; light, not dense), restrained in sweetness, made me a believer again.
If Weiss keeps cooking at this level, everyone will learn how to pronounce the restaurant’s name. Tarta admits that many still assume it’s an English word. He said he has even received phone calls asking if Due is a maternity clothing shop.