Strip malls may be as Jersey as beefsteak tomatoes, but let’s be honest: Dining in one can be a buzzkill. Robbie Felice, 26, shared similar sentiments when his restaurateur father, Joe Felice, presented him with the commercial space and funding for Viaggio, the 78-seat culinary oasis they opened together last August in Wayne’s Wedgewood Plaza.
“I had just spent five years traveling the U.S. and Europe,” says the 2011 CIA grad. “I worked for Mario Batali in New York and Vegas. I interned for Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman in Holland. And there I was, standing in front of the same crappy strip mall where I went when I was a kid.”
Felice took a deep breath, thanked his pop and accepted the challenge. Today, the cursive neon sign outside Viaggio (which fittingly means “journey” in Italian) only hints at what this talented and ambitious young chef has accomplished inside. Felice, who oversaw the charcuterie program at Batali and Joe Bastianich’s B&B Ristorante in Vegas, takes great pride in his basement curing room, packed to the rafters with all manner of salumi hand-butchered and seasoned by him from pastured Berkshire hogs.
The inviting dining room is strung with Edison bulbs, cloaked in barnwood, and has an arched brick divider, though it begs for fabric (on the walls, floor or the somewhat unforgiving steel chairs) to soak up noise and add coziness.
What emerges from Felice’s open kitchen can be astonishing. Antipasti consistently hit it out of the park, from the pate-au-choux-coated cauliflower fritti, with their gutsy romesco drizzle, to the jumbo slabs of ultra-crisp bruschetta, heaped with intensely flavorful caponata, red pepper, basil and house-made pork pastrami. Charred Spanish octopus tangled beautifully with velvety gigante beans and a dollop of apricot mostarda. A bowl of homey polpetti (meatballs) snuggled on a bed of fontina-spiked polenta and bright tomato sauce.
Primi and secondi had some winners, too. Our table nearly came to fisticuffs over pillows of ricotta gnocchi coated in a delectable duck ragù. An Amish chicken cacciatore came together wildly well, with its cheesy polenta, earthy mushroom mounds, deeply flavorful sauce and extraordinarily moist, crisp-skinned breast.
Felice’s salumi are impressive, especially the duck prosciutto, beef bresaola, and the unctuous, silky porchetta di testa offset by pickled veggies.
Felice may need to juggle a little less and finesse a bit more. On one visit, a subtle yet lovely farfalle with shrimp and leeks and a zippy, Batali-inspired bucatini amatriciana with house-cured guanciale were both marred by drastically undercooked, nearly unchewable pasta. Another night, house-made cappellacci were tender and eye-catching, but tasted more like dessert than dinner with their creamy kabocha-squash filling, brown-butter sauce and hazelnut-brittle topping. A delicate, pouch-steamed branzino fillet on a bed of fregola pasta drizzled with olive caramel sauce was too sweet one night, perfectly balanced another.
Come dessert, Felice and his part-time pastry assistant, Desiree Morrison, batted two out of three. We devoured the delicate panna cotta, its surface dappled with peach compote and crunchy shards of honey glace. Rosemary-infused olive oil cake was subtle and pleasing. Pine-nut crostada suffered from an overly salty scoop of salted caramel gelato.
Viaggio’s fixable imperfections are evidence of a talented young chef who needs to keep his eyes—and hands—on what’s coming out of his kitchen. My bet is that Felice’s personal viaggio will be long and worth following.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Italian
Price Details:Small plates, $7-$18; pastas, $19-$20; entrées, $29-$34; desserts, $7-$12
Ambience:Tuscan patio with brick arches.
Service:Well-briefed and enthusiastic, if annoyingly quick to ask, “How are we enjoying that?” We?