Restaurant Review

“Hands of Gold”: Valentina’s in Northfield

That is how chef Rosaria Conti’s skill with dough is described by Paula Giordano, her business partner. It's a just description for Conti’s pizzas and pastas. But he says not all of Valentina’s menu meets that golden standard.

Margherita pizza at Valentina's. Photo courtesy of Valentina's.

Northfield has been hurting for great Italian food since Luke Palladino closed his original BYO there in 2013. I’ve been hoping that Valentina’s, a Northfield trattoria opened in early 2015 by two former employees of Atlantic City’s famed Girasole, would fill the void.

My takeaway from two recent meals is that you can cherry-pick a wonderful meal here, but overall, Valentina’s still has a way to go.

Chef Rosaria Conti, who owns Valentina’s with Paula Giordano, has solid credentials. She grew up in her parents’ butcher shop in Naples and moved to the United States in 2003 to work at the Iovino family’s original Girasole in Philadelphia. (Rosaria’s husband, Antonino Iovino, and Gino Iovino, owner of Girasole Atlantic City, are brothers.)

In 2003, Conti relocated to the Atlantic City restaurant, where she eventually met Giordano.

“She would prepare staff meals at work that were not on the menu,” Giordano recalls, “and all I could think was, This woman has hands of gold.”

At Valentina’s, those golden hands are most often in evidence when Conti is working with dough, both pizza and pasta.

The pizzas she bakes in the restaurant’s 800- to 900-degree wood-burning oven would be my go-to takeout if I lived nearby. They’re light, slightly soft in the center, and don’t leave you feeling full, thanks to the dough’s long fermentation, a hallmark of the Neapolitan style.

“It’s a century-old Neapolitan recipe that Rosario will share with no one,” says Giordano. “No Rosaria, no dough.”

The O’ Salumiere pie—topped with fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce, shingles of fiery sopressata and a dusting of pecorino—packed a full pizza’s worth of flavor in each slice.

The San Daniele, a white pie, is topped with arugula and San Daniele prosciutto cut in thick, ragged slices. Once I removed the ungainly ham, the pie presented a perfect balance of peppery baby arugula and milky mozzarella.

From the pasta section, I would recommend the lacy tagliatelle tangled with flakes of crabmeat and shaved zucchini combined with just the right amount of béchamel. Excellent ravioli straddled summer and fall with pear-ricotta filling and woodsy brown butter-sage sauce. Once I sifted out some underripe cherry tomatoes, I savored potato gnocchi enhanced with bits of funky Taleggio cheese.

Other nicely executed dishes included orbs of fried ricotta, a fun twist on fried mozzarella, and veal Milanese, a plank of tender veal, crisp on the outside, crowned with a lemony arugula salad. Salmon baked in parchment with zucchini and tomatoes was a simple and lovely preparation of perfectly cooked fish and softly wilted vegetables.

Unfortunately, sloppy execution, sub-par ingredients and timid seasoning marred many of the offerings. Sliced pears in an arugula-Gorgonzola salad were rock hard and not sweet. Bitter oranges and flavorless kiwi were odd choices for a hacked-up tuna carpaccio of questionable freshness.

The sauce pooled around a veal scallopine was purportedly made with white wine and butter; it had so little flavor, it may as well have been made with water. Thank goodness for the complimentary cup of delicious whipped ricotta that came with the bread. It saved the veal.

Dessert, too, has rough patches. One batch of tiramisu had compact layers and lots of bold coffee-and-cocoa powder flavor; another batch was wet and disintegrated.

Service was uneven as well—blasé and negligent one night, gregarious and helpful another.

Valentina’s, in short, is a bit of a crapshoot.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Italian
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $4-$15; pizza, $12-$16; entrées, $16-$30; desserts, $7
  • Ambience:
    Loud, lively, rustic villa
  • Service:
    Disinterested and careless one night, friendly and accommodating another
  • Wine list:
    BYO
  • Valentina’s
    200 Tilton Road
    Northfield, NJ 08225
  • Hours:
    Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9 PM; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10 PM; Sunday, 4 to 9 PM. Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 AM to 3:30 PM.