As far back as he can remember, Randy Forrester was concocting complex dishes in his family’s Hopewell kitchen, trying to impress his Italian parents and grandparents. By 14, he knew he wanted to be a chef. By 16, he had convinced Scott Conant to let him intern at Conant’s Manhattan restaurant, L’Impero. In subsequent summers, he interned at Fiamma in Manhattan and New Jersey’s storied Ryland Inn and traveled through Italy, eating at Michelin-starred restaurants.
Now 30, Forrester offers the ever-increasing sum of his passion and proficiency at Osteria Radici, the 24-seat storefront he and his wife, Ally Forrester, 28, opened last October on the quiet main street of historic Allentown on the western edge of Monmouth County. Radici is Italian for roots. “Our idea,” he says, “is to celebrate the diversity of Italy, all its regions, all its microclimates.”
In doing so, he steers clear of the red-sauce routine. “We wanted to open the box a bit,” he says. “There are dishes where people have to be open to different flavor profiles, and dishes where they’ll feel more comfortable. I don’t want people to feel alienated, but I do want them to loosen up a bit.”
The loosener-in-chief is Ally, whose lineage is mostly Italian, and whose knowledge and ebullient manner make her ideally suited to the job. The couple met at the Peddie School, a private high school in Hightstown, where they were members of their respective track teams. They started dating after college, when Randy was cooking at the Harvest Moon Inn in Hopewell, and married four years ago. Each year they have visited Italy, most recently this spring, bringing daughter Giada, 2, to Umbria.
Ally took the lead in designing the dining room, preserving the ornate, mirrored mantle from the candy store and soda fountain that once occupied the space. She added historic photos of their families and of Allentown, along with Edison-bulb lighting and unusually comfortable upholstered chairs.
“I never had any training in the front of the house,” she says, “but I was in Rome buying Calabrian chili peppers to bring home, and I’ve been able to convey that experience to customers. I didn’t come up in hospitality, but I feel passionate about what Randy creates.”
Following Italian tradition, Osteria Radici’s à la carte menu is divided into four courses: al inizio (at the beginning); poi (then); per seguire (to follow); and per finire (to finish). “We want to be flexible,” Randy says, “but we like people to eat through the menu because it’s the best representation of a traditional Italian meal, hitting different notes and regions with every dish.”
In my three visits, the menu changed each time, and every dish had its own character. A lot of detail, none gratuitous, goes into every dish. For candele pasta (think floppy drinking straws) with spring-pork bianco, Randy slow cooks ground pork with onions in a milk bath for 24 hours for tenderness and combines it with creamy bel paese cheese for a delicious, silky sauce.
For visual impact, nothing tops the charred-leek crespelle, an emerald green crepe equally stunning on the palate. It gets its deep flavor and color from puréed leeks studded with crunchy charred leeks and ovals of melted Piemontese cheese, a sprinkle of chili oil assertively uniting the herbaceous and cheesy notes.
Randy forgoes the familiar fried calamari rings. His terrific Cape May squid, small and tubular, are griddled (à la plancha) for crisp edges, topped with pancetta, capers, pan-fried bread crumbs and a tangy orange sauce.
Bigeye tuna crudo, in anchovy and olive purées, and fluke crudo, with a subtle horseradish-lemon dressing and celery root foam, were each superb.
Randy clearly isn’t shy about flavor. His Caesar salad dressing strikes sparks with whole-grain French mustard seeds. “I’m not going to give you something 100 percent safe,” he says. “Even with salad, we want to make sure it leaves a lasting impression.”
Another dish that does, brilliantly, is spaghetti al limone. Forrester roasts whole lemons in olive oil, then emulsifies them—juice, pits and peel—with a bit of sugar in a blender for a creamy, intense aioli. Calling it his favorite pasta creation, Forrester admits this dish has drawn the most mixed reactions. For the faint of heart, he’ll adjust on request. “I’d rather have someone say it’s a little too this or that than not enough,” he says.
Among entrées, roasted lamb loin presented a beautiful plate strewn with perfectly tender cubes of lamb with matching cylinders of smoked carrot, all dusted with sesame and fennel seeds and a reduction of Cynar, an Italian artichoke-based liqueur.
Black bass, its skin appealingly crisp, was well matched with puréed ramps and velvety compressed cucumbers. Organically farmed ocean trout, claiming a higher and more flavorful fat content than its freshwater cousin, was delicious in a brown-butter chestnut sauce.
Forrester’s take on cacciatore, a traditional Italian hunter’s stew he interprets as “whatever a hunter shoots and then gathers on his way home,” involved tender slices of seared duck breast with just the right amount of fat, served over yellow lentils and a sprightly persimmon purée.
One constant on the dessert menu is semifreddo, a creamy semi-frozen concoction Forrester has mastered. The version we tried had a delicious salted-honey drizzle and maraschino cherry sauce.
Think of peanut butter budino as a deconstructed peanut butter cup, with a smear of thick, peanutty pudding studded with wedges of shortbread cookies and chocolate curls—a bit too sweet for my taste.
On the other hand, ricotta al forno, a barely sweet soufflé-like mound of quivering baked cheese, served with melon, star anise and anisette cookies, proved a perfect finale to a most satisfying meal.
- Cuisine Type:Italian
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$18; pastas, $14-$17; entrées, $26-$33; desserts, $9
- Ambience:Intimate storefront
- Service:Informed, enthused, enhanced by personal narrative
- Wine list:BYO