This is yet another restaurant linked to a chef with an illustrious reputation. Michael Cetrulo, who owns Scalini Fedeli in Chatham and New York City and Il Mondo Vecchio in Madison, also co-owns Porto Leggero in Jersey City. Housed in a modern building near Exchange Place, the restaurant is totally different inside from what one might expect. With its barrel ceiling, brick walls, wood-plank floors, and wrought iron, it could be in Tuscany. The service is inconsistent; on one visit, it’s offhand, while on another it couldn’t be better.
The Italian menu is unusual, divided into traditional dishes on one side and, on the other, corresponding signature dishes with the same main ingredient prepared in a different manner. For instance, there’s branzino Livornese (striped bass) in a traditional sauce of olives, capers, and onions with a hint of anchovies, while the signature version finds the branzino in a potato crust and served in a port-and-sherry vinaigrette. Several specials are offered each day.
To begin, we’re served complimentary sautéed zucchini slices, chopped tomatoes, sliced onion, and pine nuts on foccacia bread. Among the appetizers, I prefer a special of mushrooms stuffed with sausage and accompanied by arugula and fennel to the Portobello mushroom with arugula and truffle vinaigrette, which has no truffle flavor. Diver scallops with saffron sauce and chopped asparagus are a bit too salty, and mussels with carrots and fennel chunks are so salty they’re inedible. But a special of fried calamari and rock shrimp with either mild or spicy tomato sauce is excellent.
I also fare well with the pastas. Traditional agnollotti, filled with butternut squash and topped with brown butter and fried sage, is comforting, while the signature version, stuffed with porcini mushrooms and served in a white- and black-truffle cream sauce, is also good. A risotto special with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, topped with crisp fried zucchini, is hearty and good. Pungent and also hearty is the spaghetti Amatriciana, made with pancetta, onions, white wine, and tomatoes. Butterflied shrimp served with diced tomatoes and crisp batons of polenta over sautéed spinach are tender and fresh. Striped bass coated with potato slices is moist, and its port-and-sherry vinegar reduction is a good foil for the rich fish.
Hazelnut-crusted sole is less interesting. The monkfish on a bed of cabbage with champagne cream sauce and the lobster tail with two large shrimp and a spicy sauce aren’t bad, but they’re not worth ordering again. A pork chop stuffed with cheese and ham is too salty. But the huge lamb shank is a clear favorite with my guests.
For dessert, an apple tart that turns out to be half of a poached apple and no tart disappoints, while a moist ricotta cheesecake accompanied by a small mound of strawberries in balsamic vinegar is good. The flourless chocolate cake is intense and tasty, but the fillo cannollicini—layers of phyllo coated with chocolate and layered with chocolate cream—is no match for the same dish served at Scalini Fedeli. The zabaglione, served in a martini glass, tastes more of cream than of Marsala or egg yolks.
Reviewed in: March 2006Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Italian