After years in the restaurant business in New York and Jersey City, David Massoni itched to open a place of his own, “a gathering place, as cheesy as it sounds, where everyone knows your name.”
While I never felt the urge to yell “Norm!” I can attest that the Fox and Falcon is convivial. I live in neighboring Maplewood, and on my two visits I ran into friends, one of my third-grader’s classmates, and my real estate agent.
Massoni was a founding partner with chef Dale Talde of the Three Kings Restaurant Group. Though the group dissolved this year, Massoni remains a partner in Talde’s Jersey City location.
Executive chef Matthew Ruzga, a Monmouth County native who now calls Maplewood home, trained at Johnson & Wales and mastered his craft at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Lupa. Prior to Fox and Falcon, he was executive sous chef at Del Posto in Manhattan.
Fox and Falcon opened in November last year in a space previously home to South Mountain Tavern, and before that, Ricalton’s. The restaurant offers 180 seats, comprising the Snug, a cozy nook of a bar on the ground floor, and one flight up, the main dining room and the somewhat hidden Essex Bar. Massoni introduced a fine, clubby look, with banquettes upholstered in tan leather, and added schoolhouse chairs and artwork from his own collection of Americana.
Influenced by gastropubs and the River Café in London, Massoni says his vision was to combine “the hospitality of an Irish pub and the food of a trattoria.”
The small menu of mostly Italian dishes is designed for sharing, and the portions are generous. I got off to a good start with Jersey fluke crudo. Sliced thin and cured in salt and sugar, the fish was dressed with extra virgin olive oil, lime juice, parsley, celery leaf, Fresno chile and pine nuts. I also loved the fennel fried in rice-flour batter, with a Dijon-tarragon aioli. It made me think of a minimalist fritto misto, light as a great tempura.
A flight of three pecorinos—aged three months, six months and one year—made for a brilliantly curated plate. The cheeses, imported from Abruzzo, Italy, were paired with honey from the same farm where they were made.
I had high expectations for the pastas, given that Ruzga had run the renowned pasta program at Del Posto. He mostly surpassed expectations. Linguine with mussels in white wine reduction gained heat and a vegetal note from slivered jalapeños. Also great were tubetti rigati, tiny, foreshortened macaroni in a rich, sweet and piquant sauce of tomato, pancetta and onion. On the other hand, the Roman classic cacio e pepe was uneven. On my first visit, the dish was lukewarm and gloppy. On my return, the pecorino romano, cracked pepper and olive oil formed the perfect amalgam.
A huge cut of grilled prime rib-eye with duxelles sauce and roasted maitakes was first-rate. A grilled fillet of black bass with salsa verde and shaved fennel would have been great if not for its limp skin. Better was deftly seared Barnegat tilefish over cannellini and cranberry beans, though the flavors, textures and colors cried out for contrast.
Our server forgot to bring us one of our entrées, a dish of root vegetables, spinach, tomato and feta topped with breadcrumbs. When it finally arrived, it resembled a casserole with the unfortunate parti-colored palette of that ’70s potluck staple, ambrosia. It was the restaurant’s only major misstep.
There’s redemption in dessert. Tiramisu in a jar was delectable. The piping hot apple brown betty—a salute to Massoni’s mother’s apple crumble—exuded heady aromas of butter, vanilla and cinnamon. If Fox and Falcon is still a work in progress, it’s one that could add magnetism to the somewhat underpowered South Orange dining scene. I look forward to what F&F does next.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Italian
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $12–$23; entrées, $18–$36; desserts, $6–$10
- Ambience:Convivial gastropub
- Service:Friendly and attentive
- Wine list:Creative cocktails; 24 beers, 12 wines by quartino, plus bottle list