On South + Pine’s website, chef/co-owner Leia Gaccione bills herself as “chief cook + bottle washer.” I don’t know about the bottles, but the Ball jar in which she served a terrific panna cotta last summer with cherries and candied pistachios was sparkly clean. As for cooking, she sure can.
There’s a wink in that self-deprecating description, and it enlivens every dish at South + Pine, which Gaccione named for its location on Morristown’s burgeoning restaurant row, South Street, near the corner of Pine.
The servers wear black T-shirts that say S+P, a felicitous abbreviation for a restaurant, though you won’t need to add salt or pepper to Gaccione’s food. The Passaic native, 32, graduated from the New York Restaurant School in 2003, worked at Raymond’s in Montclair, Son Cubano in Manhattan and other places before catching on with Bobby Flay, a man not shy with spices. From 2008 to 2014, Gaccione served at various times as executive chef or chef de cuisine of Flay’s Mesa Grill, Bar Americain and Gato in Manhattan; Mesa Grill in Las Vegas; and Bar Americain at Mohegan Sun.
Gaccione assisted Flay as a sous in three of his Iron Chef battles. On the phone, she told me she learned from him “the importance of balance in a dish,” be it sweet/spicy, sour/soothing, or creamy/crunchy. She learned well.
Opening South + Pine last May, Gaccione tempered summer’s heat with several artful dishes. There was her spicy green gazpacho, as she called it. Made from green tomatoes, cucumbers, fennel and bell peppers puréed with lemon juice, olive oil and a touch of jalapeños, it was thick, creamy, and sumptuously enhanced with a poached-shrimp salsa featuring chunks of ripe avocado. Green tomatoes, this time cornmeal-crusted and fried to a happy crisp, complemented a luscious lump of burrata in an arugula salad. Fresh peaches, Gruyère and duck confit blended beautifully on a hot, crisp flatbread showered with arugula.
“I want this to be a really good neighborhood spot,” she told me, “the kind of place I would want to go to where the food is really good and fresh, but it’s casual and affordable.”
South + Pine is especially affordable at lunch, where a terrific Angus burger with fried egg, house-smoked cheddar, bacon aioli and hand-cut fries is $15. Gaccione lavishes no less care on her $9 S+P salad, a mix of bibb lettuce, radicchio and arugula in a buttermilk dressing with sunflower seeds, grapes, cucumbers and grated ricotta salata.
Prices are somewhat higher at dinner. But even at the vaunted Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen (separated from South + Pine by the Mayo Performing Arts Center), you won’t find a fish dish more outstanding than Gaccione’s $26, pan-seared, butter-basted bronzino. It comes with a vivacious retinue of smoked corn relish, basil pesto and a roasted-tomato purée sparked with Calabrian chilies. Hanger steak with horseradish hollandaise and crunchy fries was exemplary. The priciest item, a $28 lamb porterhouse (two T-bone-like chops) delivered juicy, deeply flavorful meat under an atavistic char.
When the restaurant is busy, the wait for food can seem long. It’s not a service issue, it’s a kitchen issue. Gaccione told me she’s been trying to hire cooks for months, but few apply. “I don’t know if the market is saturated or people aren’t motivated,” she said. “It’s happening in New York, too. So far, we’ve been able to handle it, but I would kill for a few more cooks.”
One result is that fried chicken—boneless white meat with a sweet potato waffle—was overcooked on one occasion, just right the next. Another is that the menu is small. Gaccione makes her own desserts. Until the panna cotta was added in August, there were just two: an empanada-like fresh blueberry “hand pie” and a chocolate stout pudding sprinkled with graham cracker crumbs and topped with creamy, house-made marshmallow. The hand pie had a terrific crust rife with crunchy sugar crystals. The pudding made me bow my head and nod as if contemplating some ageless wisdom.
By the time you read this, many new dishes will be in place. Look for, among other things, scallops with parsnip purée, crispy prosciutto and pomegranate brown butter. “It’s only been a few months,” Gaccione said, “but it feels like forever.” The nice thing about growing pains? You grow.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$14; entrées, $18-$28; sides, $5; desserts, $10.
Ambience:Shabby chic with a wink.
Service:Upbeat and engaged.