Certain occasions call for dressing up, spending a little extra, and booking a table at a fancy restaurant with a great reputation. Scalini Fedeli—located in a 260-year-old farmhouse—has long been just such a place. Decorated with fussy white curtains and Tuscan-style tapestries, the atmosphere is formal—some might say stodgy—but gloriously redeemed by a vaulted, salmon-colored ceiling, shaped like medieval arcades in Europe.
The name scalini fedeli, which translates as “little steps of faith,” is a metaphor for chef Michael Cetrulo’s dream of climbing to the heights of Old World cuisine. Though not formally trained, Cetrulo—who was born to an Italian-American family in Newark and raised mainly in Wayne—began as a teenaged prep cook and dishwasher in a Blairstown restaurant where his father was a chef. Better jobs and several stints in Europe followed. His first restaurant was Il Mondo Vecchio in Madison, a casual, moderately priced Italian trattoria that remains popular.
But at a certain point, his vision grew grander. “I wanted a place that offered an upscale atmosphere and the kind of rich and special food I like to eat when I go out,” he says. Scalini Fedeli opened thirteen years ago. Rave reviews followed.
The menu is described as “Northern Italian food with a distinct French flare”—a risky combination, considering the contrasts between these cuisines. Much of Cetrulo’s cooking is based on French-influenced sauces. He was deeply impressed by an internship in Bologna, and by time spent observing at the renowned Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, where an Italian husband and a French wife merged their cuisines to earn three Michelin stars. He focuses on the art of the reduction, enhanced by truffle infusions, cream, and butter finishes. Some sauces are based on double reductions—for example, a port wine reduction and a mushroom reduction, later blended to achieve depth, complexity, and richness.
His triumphs are apparent in a Chilean sea bass served with olives, tomato, and fennel pushed through a sieve to create a rich sauce finished with butter. A primo piatto of mushroom ravioli arrives bathed in intoxicating and rich mushroom sauce. Braised short ribs reach tangy perfection in a port wine reduction and tomato sauce.
Among starters, a mushroom and black- truffle napoleon is exceptional, with rich and creamy mushrooms served between crisp, delicate wafers of beet and garlic. On the lighter side, capellini in a spicy tomato sauce with capers, olives, and anchovies is bright and lively.
Alas, the soul of Italian cuisine—sparklingly fresh ingredients and brilliant simplicity—seems missing or overpowered by complex sauces and oversize portions. For example, an amuse bouche of shrimp was slathered in a glowing mustard sauce and sprinkled with crispy leeks—but the shrimp itself tasted a bit mealy and flat. Diver scallops were adequate but not sweet with flavor and freshness. Lamb was bland and almost mushy, served with fried artichokes that were seriously mushy. Additionally, two fresh pasta dishes arrived undercooked, well short of al dente.
With its focus on heavy sauces rather than jump-off-the-plate freshness capturing the essence of each ingredient, Scalini Fedeli seems somewhat dated. These faults would be easier to overlook at a less expensive and renowned restaurant. A surprise sorbet course featured scoops of grapefruit and strawberry sorbet with flavor that did not exceed a premium supermarket variety. We also wondered why we were having strawberry instead of something seasonal. Bread that was cold and not terribly fresh broke a cardinal rule for a restaurant of this caliber. A beet salad was acceptable but pedestrian—the vinaigrette lacked flavor and nuance.
Thankfully, desserts were consistently good to excellent. Perfect buttery crusts gave glory to a banana tart, as well as to apple and pear tarts we tasted. A separate chocolate menu was exquisite, and a flourless chocolate cake was beautifully presented and intense.
Service on the first visit, a Saturday night, was acceptable if diffident. A server brought the sorbets and the amuse bouche without explaining what they were. But on our second visit our waiter was warm, attentive, and knowledgeable.
If you measure Scalini Fedeli solely by the food on the plate, there may be better places to dine, often at better prices. However, if you’re looking for a special atmosphere and fine service, with rich, often rewarding food, you’ll find it here.Click here to leave a comment