Family and food culture inspire chef Mike Colletti at VB3, the restaurant he and two of his cousins opened in downtown Jersey City in 2012. VB3 stands for Villa Borghese 3. Years ago, the two cousins created the first ones—Middlesex County pizzerias Villa Borghese in Fords and Villa Borghese II in Helmetta. VB3, which adds Asian and American touches to its largely Italian menu, is more ambitious and wide-ranging, but for Colletti, it is “the third addition to the family.” Some might consider it the fourth. His father owned Mister Bagel in Brick.
Growing up in Manalapan with his parents and Sicilian-born grandparents, Colletti ate garden to table. “My grandfather had a huge garden,” he told me in a phone call after my visits. “Whatever was growing in our garden was on our table. That was just our lifestyle.”
Recently, the 31-year-old chef, a graduate of the Culinary Education Center in Asbury Park, has often been absent from VB3’s kitchen. He and his friend and longtime business partner, Spike Mendelsohn, were creating the restaurants for a new hotel in Miami Beach. In 2009, they won the Rachael Ray Burger Bash with their Colletti Smokehouse Burger, with bacon, cheddar, crispy onion petals and balsamic barbecue sauce. It anchors VB3’s brief but inviting burger menu.
House-made pickled-ramp aioli adds tang to the VB3 Burger, made from Angus short rib, brisket and chuck from John Sacco & Sons in Elizabeth. Topped with bacon, provolone, a fried egg and the aioli, it is a two-fisted delight.
VB3 is an amalgam. Part sports bar and lounge, part edgy restaurant with black chairs and black tablecloths, it gives off a slick vibe, especially on its always busy weeknights, when the music blasts. But the food overcomes the blare.
Colletti’s braised-then-grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes could pass muster at any tapas restaurant, though the recipe is based on a dish his Sicilian grandmother used to make. Arancini, the traditional fried Italian rice balls, were excellent and a little different from the ragù-filled arancini his grandmother made. Wanting another vegetarian option on the menu, Colletti makes his arancini from saffron-infused risotto with peas and bits of mozzarella for a luscious ooze. He serves them with a pleasing orange-and-saffron aioli.
Rigatoni, in a rich lamb ragù, and sea bass, served over Sicilian-style sweet-and-sour cauliflower and potatoes with capers and golden raisins, were excellent as well. Wild-mushroom pizza, lush with pecorino, truffle oil and thyme, was flavorful if overburdened with mozzarella, possibly contributing to its thin crust being limp.
Not counting Miami Beach, Colletti and Mendelsohn have opened three restaurants together. Two were Vietnamese, the result of six months traveling together in Vietnam. VB3’s thin-sliced, grilled beef short ribs are marinated in Vietnamese fish sauce, chilies and sesame oil and served with charred scallions and a Romesco sauce made with sesame seeds instead of the traditional Spanish way, with chopped almonds. The meat was slightly over-charred, but the marinade produced memorable flavors.
Asian influence is obvious in crunchy coconut shrimp with coconut-ginger rice and spicy roasted peanut sauce, as well as miso-glazed salmon with bok choy, shiitakes and citrus. Other non-Italian dishes include crab and shrimp mac and cheese, crisp and golden on top, creamy and delicious underneath; and a chopped baby-kale and apple salad with bacon, a perfect combination of creamy, smoky, salty and sweet.
Standout desserts by pastry chef Marcello Arnato included hot fresh-fried beignets filled with apricot jam, and cheesecake made from a cross-cultural riff of ricotta, mascarpone and cream cheese with melted white chocolate swirled into the batter.
- Cuisine Type:European - Italian
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $10-$18; burgers, $14-$15; pizza, $12-$16; entrées, $19-$36; sides, $6-$10; desserts, $8-$10.
- Ambience:Young, trendy, loud.
- Service:Friendly, informed, helpful.
- Wine list:60 bottles, most available by the glass; 8-10 beers on draft; signature cocktails.