Drop everything, head to Wayne’s new Italian spot, Viaggio, and order the chicken. Yes, the chicken. Yes, this is a rare and ringing endorsement of what is the most notoriously boring dish in most restaurants.
And no, it’s not Parmigiana or Francese. Those Italian-American favorites happen to be banned from the premises of Viaggio, a strip-mall restaurant that seeks to present food as it’s cooked in Italy. With his chicken, chef-partner Robbie Felice presents an unforgettable interpretation of cacciatore that involves brining the breast and stuffing a delectable herb-cheese-breadcrumb mixture under the skin, then serving it over mushrooms whose flavor has been amped up with chicken-leg confit and ground pancetta ($29).
Felice, at age 26 a serious talent to watch, is a former sous chef for the restaurant group of Mario Batali and Joseph and Lidia Bastianich. Now, many chefs have toiled in big-name restaurants, and you wouldn’t always know it from their own creations. Here, the influence is clear: Felice’s best dishes bear intense, soulful flavors that evoke those of the acclaimed Babbo in Manhattan, where Felice was once an extern before rising to sous chef at the group’s B&B Ristorante in Las Vegas.
This 3 1/2-star rating is the highest for a restaurant in Passaic County in the nine years I’ve been The Record’s reviewer. The most significant drawback: hard metal chairs that dig into your sides. They should be replaced.
Too bad, though, because aesthetically they fit right into a dining room decorated to evoke a Tuscan farmhouse, with gracious sconces on brick columns, tablecloth-less wooden tables, and lights strung across a patterned ceiling. You can just imagine the vines and fig trees off in the back, instead of the busy open kitchen.
You’re set up nicely here with a crunchy-crusted loaf from the famous Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan, but it’s worth springing for the $7 pillowy foccacia, heaped with caramelized onions, if only for its accompanying bowl of pungent Sicilian olive oil.
That’s the first of many ingredients that set this restaurant apart. Felice is serving Berkshire pigs and free-range chickens from Lancaster County, and his cured meat and pastas are either house-made or imported from Italy. Alas, the restaurant was out of the house-made charcuterie when I was there, but my platter of imported mortadella, soppressata, calabrese and prosciutto was one of North Jersey’s most satisfying charcuterie selections ($21). There’s also a comparatively ordinary cheese plate ($17) that should be skipped to make room for some extraordinary appetizers.
First, calamari. Felice soaks his squid in buttermilk before frying it, then tosses in pickled shallots and Calabrian chilis, and mellows it all with a lemon butter sauce ($12). I regret sharing this dish.
Next, try the octopus tentacles, braised and charred and arranged over an herbal combination of the large white gigante beans, all pulled together with a tangy-sweet apricot mostarda ($14). And lastly, sample bruschetta ($7 alone or $18 for a huge platter of three types). The standout is a deeply scented eggplant caponata; carnivores may also appreciate the house-made Berkshire pork pastrami.
As in Italy, Viaggio’s menu offers both a “primi” section of pastas and a “secondi” section of entrées; our waiter correctly described the primi dishes as smaller and suggested ordering both, but that’s overkill if you’ve ordered appetizers.
Both categories offer good options, though. We swooned over two house-made pastas: cappellaci pasta filled with kabocha squash ($19), and super-light gnocchi made of both potato and ricotta ($20). But Batali’s influence is most clear in the fiery bucatini all’amatriciana flecked with pancetta ($19). In the secondi category, red-meat lovers should spring for tagliata — slices of famously tender imported Piedmontese beef accented with a faintly sweet cipollini onion agrodolce ($31).
As for desserts, ignore the too-salty pine nut crostata ($11) and try the phenomenal house-made cinnamon gelato ($11, preferably without its heavy-handed topping of candied nuts and apple chips) — or the delicate panna cotta ($9; ours was flavored with sweet potato). The star? A luscious rosemary olive oil cake ($9) that is Felice’s tribute to the acclaimed Babbo pastry chef Gina dePalma, who died last year.
Our confident, gregarious waiter effortlessly described dishes and did his best to make us feel comfortable, even when the talk at my table revolved around the logistics of bringing our own chair to a restaurant. Or maybe just a stadium seat cushion? Or a big puffy coat to sit upon? The testament to Viaggio’s food is that it is absolutely worth that kind of effort.