Neckties at lunch—and plenty of them. You seldom see that in the suburbs. Women in business attire, too. In fact, Rezza, in Roseland, is packed—busier at lunch than at dinner.
Chalk it up to a trifecta of right location, right food and right price. Situated in a modern brick-and-glass strip mall on Eisenhower Parkway a quarter mile south of I-280, Rezza is surrounded by big law firms and corporate offices. White-collar types have been known to break away for lunch, especially if there’s a good place to go.
Rezza’s chef/owner, John Bendokas, offers well-executed Italian-American staples, pizzas, sandwiches and wraps alongside Roman specialties and what you might call an Italian-Italian menu of antipasti, formaggi, verduri, salumi, pastas and entrées.
Bendokas, 33, is Lithuanian on his father’s side. “But my mother’s father was from Avellino, outside Naples,” he told me after my visits, “and that was the side of my family I spent the most time with.” After graduating from the CIA in 2003, Bendokas made several trips to Rome, fell in love with its contemporary cooking and opened Rezza in April 2013, intending to bestow Rome’s culinary riches on the local Italian-American communities.
There was just one problem. “A lot of people didn’t understand it,” he said. “Like spaghetti carbonara. It’s classic Roman, but in Rome they don’t thicken it with cream, like they do here; they use raw egg yolk. Am I going to argue with them? No.” He took it off the menu, along with braised tripe and a few other Roman specialties that weren’t selling.
After hearing dozens of requests for chicken Francese, Bendokas put it on the menu—“using real lemon juice, not from a bottle.” Rezza’s menu has an “Italian-American Specialties” section. One of my guests spotted veal parm. Declaring himself a devotee, he ordered it. It came with a mound of spaghetti in red sauce. Shortly thereafter, his verdict was plain to see: a clean plate.
“I’m trying,” Bendokas said, “to find the sweet spot, where my customers are happy and I’m happy.”
His starters are Italianate incarnate. His four Italian cheeses include gloriously pungent Tallegio; the five salumi include imported cooked prosciutto; the four verduri include Brussels sprouts with bacon-like chunks of guanciale; antipasti include wondrously tender braised octopus with sautéed fingerling potatoes, fresh lemon juice and big caper berries, stem and all.
In 2001, while a student at the CIA, Bendokas externed at Serenade in Chatham. He later worked there and in New York. Rezza was formerly a Bensi, an Italian chain. Bendokas’s father sanded down one of the Bensi tables, hand-distressed it and sealed the wood with butcher block oil. The contractor followed suit with the rest. They knocked down a wall, repainted, added handsome retro lighting, some art, and that’s about it. It’s enough.
Appetizers illustrate the chef’s accommodating straddle. There are crisp, smoky, bacon-cured wings with blue cheese dip; Buffalo wings; and grilled or sautéed sausage. There’s also a fine farro salad with roasted sunchokes, apples, castelrosso cheese and winter squash. In an eggplant rollatini, the rich ricotta and marinara did not drown out the nutty flavor and plush texture of the eggplant.
Salads, like the offbeat tricolore—substituting three kinds of shredded cabbage for the traditional radicchio, arugula and endive—were fresh and thoughtfully detailed. The tricolore, for example, included apples, hazelnuts and a bacon vinaigrette studded with nuggets of dark, crunchy bacon.
Side dishes are a festival in themselves. Rosemary polenta; meatballs in gravy; and sautéed escarole were each classic and delicious. But the must-order are the punched potatoes. Red Bliss potatoes are par-boiled, flattened on a cutting board with a smack of the hand, and pan fried in olive oil until dark and crunchy outside, dreamy-creamy inside. Out they go under a blanket of caramelized onions and garlic-infused olive oil.
Notable pastas include al dente spaghetti with red clam sauce; house-made cavatelli with hot sausage, broccoli rabe, spicy tomato sauce and pecorino; and caserecci (like a thin penne, but slit so it holds sauce well). The caserecci soak up the natural juices in a marvelous sauce of braised lamb and sweet cipollini onions.
The moistness of a cod Livornese, zesty with tomato, onions, capers and olives, showed the kitchen’s finesse with fish. At $20 for a generous portion, it also exemplifies Rezza’s bang for the buck. Pizzas, too, give good value. Most cost $14 to $18 and come in two shapes, 16-inch round or 12-by-17-inch rectangular (which, Bendokas says, is Roman style).
Rezza’s house-made cheesecake and pannetone French toast with Nutella are fine, but the most refined flavors are found in the gelati from Il Laboratorio del Gelato on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“We try to be a warm and friendly neighborhood restaurant,” Bendokas said. Rezza may not be the purely Roman candle Bendokas envisioned, but it casts a very welcome light.
Price Details:Antipasti and appetizers, $5-$15; sandwiches/wraps, $8-$12; salads, $6-$11; pizza, $13-$22; pasta, $14-$20; entrees, $16-$35; sides, $5-$8; desserts. $6-$9/
Ambience:Family-friendly vibe in a big-windowed, modestly furnished space popular with local business types.
Service:Quick, courteous and glad to make suggestions.