New Jerseyans hankering for Italian might naturally head to Trenton or Hamilton, towns with long-established connections to Italian culture and cuisine. Perhaps not as many know to make their way to a hidden side street just off Lawrenceville’s tiny commercial district to snag a table at Vidalia. There, they’d join a lively crowd consuming delicious food in the warm ambience that has become a trademark of owner Salvatore Scarlata.
Most nights, Scarlata, who is also Vidalia’s chef, leaves the bustling kitchen to greet guests in the dining room or the covered patio (fully enclosed in winter). Many of them have been coming here regularly for nearly two decades.
“I like to walk the floor to make sure my customers are happy,” says Scarlata, 45. “And if not, I try to redeem myself on the spot. I’d rather solve it while they’re here rather than have them go home and complain to friends. If someone writes a negative review, we try to call them and invite them back. I give them my personal cell phone number. I want to stay in business, so my reputation has to be 100 percent.”
Scarlata credits this approach to his roots. Born in Sicily and raised mainly in northern Liguria amidst a family of talented cooks and restaurateurs, Scarlata and his family emigrated to North Trenton when he was 12, opening a pizza shop in the Mercer Mall. “I grew up in the pizza business,” he says, “but I was more creative, so I diverted from that.”
By 15, he was working the line at one of Trenton’s best restaurants, Pete Lorenzo’s. “I had three Italian ladies in the kitchen teaching me how to cook, and one Italian mother at home. So basically, I had four Italian ladies yelling at me, and they were all good cooks.”
He moved on to Tre Piani in Princeton and Rat’s in Hamilton, where, he says, he worked for free just to get experience. At 28, he jumped at the chance to take over Vidalia, which had been in business 10 years. “I was told, ‘Don’t do anything too drastic. Why change a successful formula?’ So I introduced specials, and the specials eventually became menu items.” Today, only two original items remain: the caramelized onion stuffed with fennel sausage and red peppers, and the Vidalia loaf, a sesame-seeded bread stuffed with sauteed onions and seasonal vegetables, blanketed with melted mozzarella. We sampled the latter and could have walked away satisfied right then.
But guided by the attuned servers, we enjoyed the pan-fried mozzarella balls, their creamy centers busting open in a tangy tomato, caper and red wine sauce. We also tried regional dishes, like battered, pan-fried artichoke hearts, a recipe from Scarlata’s birthplace of Sicily, which he finishes with a white wine, lemon and butter sauce.
Scarlata kept the name Vidalia, inherited from the previous owners, so we felt we had to try the eponymous Vidalia onion soup—a rich beef stock loaded with silky onions and topped with a chewy crostino and melted bib of mozzarella. We countered these filling appetizers with salads, which were also impressive, especially the insalata Palermitana, which hails from Palermo, Sicily’s capital. Over Bibb lettuce, a nest of orange slices, slivered fresh fennel and shaved provolone was enriched with an earthy balsamic dressing.
Entrées were as generously portioned as the starters. “We try to do quality and quantity,” says Scarlata. “People are spending a good amount of money, so we want to be sure they get enough.”
Case in point: the osso buco di maile, an enormous pork shank slow-cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness and served in a tomato, caper and kalamata olive sauce, over saffron risotto. My brother was in heaven with this rustic dish. More esoteric were my five perfectly pan-seared scallops in creamy lemon-Champagne sauce, with honey-infused mashed sweet potatoes and crisp, sautéed green beans. Egg-battered chicken Francese was tasty, but a bit overcooked; baked salmon, though moist and flakey, needed more sauce.
A tasty (and perfectly al dente) penne Genovese, a classic from Scarlata’s northern-Italian upbringing, featured a lively mix of sun-dried tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, asparagus and peas, lavishly finished with mascarpone and truffle oil. Equally satisfying were pillowy gnocchi with arugula in pesto cream sauce.
Among desserts, only tiramisu and cannoli are made in-house. The recipe for torta de crème brulée with graham cracker crust, however, was created by Scarlata as a twist on ricotta pie with a caramelized sugar crust. It proved to be a dream combination. Lava cake, by an outside vendor, was unnoteworthy. But torta della nonna, a creamy lemon-meringue custard nestled in a shortbread crust, made for a most pleasing finale.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Italian
- Price Range:Moderate–Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $9–$18; pastas and entrées, $17–$39; desserts, $10–$12
- Ambience:Rustic, congenial and festive
- Service:Attentive and knowledgeable
- Wine list:BYO