Beginning in 2002, Neapolitan chef Rosaria Conti spent her first 12 years in America cooking in the highly regarded kitchen of Girasole Ristorante in Atlantic City. A year ago, Conti and her friend Paula Giordano, Girasole’s longtime bookkeeper, opened their own restaurant, Valentina’s Trattoria Italiana, about eight miles west of Girasole, in Northfield.
“Rosaria and I had long discussed the possibility,” Giordano, 45, told me after my visits. “We had a common goal to set off on our own, for ourselves and our kids, and see where it could take us.”
Judging from people lining up to get in on two weekends last fall, Valentina’s is a hit. It has already expanded twice, doubling its capacity to 110 seats and opening a market selling imported items and the restaurant’s own pastas, breads and cookies. Conti’s son, Salvatore Iovino, 31, who had been a waiter at Girasole, manages Valentina’s. Giordano, who co-owns it with Conti, 59, handles the books.
“I didn’t have any doubts my mom would do well,” Iovino told me. “She has so much love and passion that comes through in all her dishes. We weren’t trying to be a Girasole, with the Versace couches. We wanted the trattoria atmosphere, where someone can sit down and have an elegant dinner, but also feel comfortable bringing the kids.”
Despite its strip-mall setting, Valentina’s is a feast for the eyes. Rough-hewn barn timbers line the walls; above the wood tables and chairs, crystal chandeliers descend from a pressed-copper ceiling.
Conti hews to her roots, recreating the kinds of classic dishes I enjoyed on a trip to Naples a few years back. Start with her Neapolitan pizza, some of the best I’ve eaten. We enjoyed both the Funghi Selvatici, with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, San Marzano tomatoes and handmade mozzarella; and the Tartufo, a white pie with pecorino, caramelized onions, mozzarella, truffle cream and a sunny-side up egg.
Several appetizers impressed us, including ricotta medallions, the curds mixed with chopped speck, lightly breaded and fried; and the polpettine, two large, moist beef meatballs in a rich tomato sauce, topped with fresh ricotta and toasted pine nuts. Fried calamari, with a side of marinara, were notably tender. Mussels were well-mated with a spicy red sauce, though too much tomato sauce smothered the delicate eggplant and mozzarella in the eggplant parmigiana.
Pastas handmade by Conti include pliant pappardelle, regal in a sausage, mushroom and truffle cream sauce. Of entrées, beef braciole, the classic braise of beef in tomato sauce, was marvelous over house-made gnocchi. Succulent grilled lamb chops deserved better than the gummy onion rings they shared a plate with.
Wild salmon, cooked in parchment with zucchini and cherry tomatoes, was moist and sweet. Sautéed jumbo shrimp, slightly overcooked, were partly redeemed by a pleasing chickpea paté flavored with shallots and rosemary.
Whole grilled branzino in a Sicilian lemon-caper sauce and pan-seared orato in a lemon-rosemary sauce were delicious, but mangled in clumsy tableside filleting.
Service can be erratic. Diners are told that multiple servers will look after them. In our two visits, it took several tries to flag anyone for basics like water refills or a recitation of desserts.
Italian cheesecake more resembled the creamy New York style. Chocolate soufflé cake was moist, with a crisp crust. Dense coconut cake with white-chocolate icing and chunky walnuts was thoroughly satisfying. Tiramisu lacked the espresso and rum flavors normally associated with this classic dessert. Yogurt and Nutella cake, a strange mix of sour and sweet, simply didn’t work.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $8-$13; pizzas, $11-$16; pastas and entrées, $14-$32; sides, $5-$6; desserts, $8.
Ambience:Big happy crowd.
Service:Team approach leaves gaps.