An Englewood Cliffs visitor might mistake the row of status cars in front of 484 Sylvan Avenue for an auto dealership. But the establishment is Grissini, a Northern Italian restaurant whose clientele includes a number of Jaguar, BMW, and Mercedes owners. Grissini may have a humble meaning—“breadsticks”—but the cars outside capture the restaurant’s exclusive, clubby air.
Grissini was launched in 1993 by Tony Del Gatto, a local hospitality pro who has owned Westmount Country Club, a Woodland Park catering hall, since 1976. Del Gatto, 72, knows how to throw a party, and Grissini is festive, with table-to-table waving and a see-and-be-seen vibe.
There’s a bit of a door scene, too, with owner, manager, and hosts greeting regulars with handshakes and air-kisses. Diners close to Del Gatto’s heart are granted one of four tables in a handsome, comfortable side nook. “People call it the VIP room,” says the boss.
Other patrons are guided to the long, narrow middle room with floor-to-ceiling windows on one side and Grissini’s wide galley kitchen on the other. A third room beyond, which Del Gatto soundproofed “down to the seat cushions,” houses murmuring twosomes and celebratory parties. This room is also the roost of an old-school autocratic waiter. But never fear. No matter where you sit, if the charming Del Gatto gets to know you, he’ll be sure to come over and schmooze.
A bread basket (yes, including terrific grissini—thin, rich, and crunchy) will arrive along with menus. Your waiter will recite an impressively memorized retinue of tempting off-menu specials sans prices. Ask, and you will find that the pasta with lobster commands a $55 tab (at the time of this review) and the fettuccini with rare white winter truffles a princely $90. Or don’t ask; clearly, Grissini diners are as well-heeled as they look.
Grissini’s food is suitably silky and sumptuous. Chef Alberto Leandri was raised in Venice, where “everyone cooks,” he says. “Thirteen years old, I’m coming home from school to make my family’s dinner.” Now 39, Leandri segued to cooking school, then continued to New York in 1995. He landed in the kitchen of Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia and then the theater district’s century-old Barbetta, both bastions of refined Northern Italian cuisine.
Any dish you’d expect to find on Grissini’s traditional Tuscan menu, you probably will. But Leandri’s kitchen springs a few seductive surprises, like Venetian-style fish and shellfish recipes and impeccably cooked and often deliciously sauced pastas.
House-made daily, Grissini’s pastas can be ordered in half portions. I can vouch for rigatoni with savory, chunky veal-and-beef ragù; perfectly pillowy gnocchi tossed with sautéed sliced eggplant, San Marzano tomatoes, and Pecorino; paglia e fieno with cream, peas, and sautéed prosciutto slivers; and appealingly firm fettuccini in a glossy, brandy-tinged reduction laden with wild-mushrooms in season. (Leandri, a mushroom wizard, scatters flavorful fungi on numerous dishes, and his wild mushroom pizza is a treasure.)
Still, not all pasta is enchanted. The caramelized fennel advertised in tagliolini with salmon proved undetectable, rendering the dish pale in taste as well as hue. Likewise, seafood spaghettini fra diavolo emerged a pepper-free devil.
Clubs are not known for bold kitchens. An entrée of pan-seared snapper, though admirably fresh, was dully underdressed; as a Grissini patron, it would never make the VIP room. But Leandri’s subtle approach often pays off. Many of his fish and shellfish recipes stay afloat on the ocean sweetness of their ingredients alone. It’s hard to imagine crustaceans fresher than Grissini’s nearly egg-sized Mediterranean rope mussels. Delicately steamed in a spoon-worthy broth of garlic, olive oil, white wine, and parsley, they make a perfect appetizer. (“Other chefs have budgets,” says Leandri. “But Tony lets me order the best.”) Fish are even more simply prepared by sautéing, grilling, broiling, or in the case of meaty Mediterranean sea bass (bronzino), roasting in a wood-burning oven used to make pizza during lunch service.
“I cook from my heart,” says Leandri, “and I really love seafood and pasta.” That much is clear. But he does right by other entrées, too. The massive veal chop, sourced from Quebec, is first grilled, then briefly broiled to crisp and caramelize the fat, with delicious results. Grissini’s beef, dry aged for 21 days, packs enough flavor even in a lean filet mignon to counterbalance its melted gorgonzola lid. Veal cutlets and chicken breasts are pleasing; veal scaloppine Francese, with lemon butter sauce, was a model of its kind. A more complex chicken rollatini is enticingly stuffed with prosciutto and Fontina but mired in a salty brown gravy that recalled Thanksgiving turkeys past.
Desserts, house-made by Leandri’s pasta chef, are not distinctive. The inevitable tiramisu had the right creamy texture but scant espresso flavor. On one visit, my slice of ricotta cheesecake had a pleasant taste of lemon and an unpleasant aftertaste of refrigerator. On another visit, the temperature and freshness were spot on. The cannoli’s mascarpone filling was fatally oversweetened, and the chocolate-frosted devil’s food cake was ordinary. Grissini’s ice cream creations are made out of house at the Belleville factory of Bindi, an international dessert purveyor.
If you dine at Grissini, don’t go just once. Keep at it, and you’ll become a regular, relishing Leandri’s pasta, seafood, veal, and beef and wallowing in Del Gatto’s attention. Definitely go Sundays, when the kitchen serves the meatballs in Sunday sauce that Del Gatto makes himself. Someday, Grissini’s valets may even park your humble chariot out front.Click here to leave a comment