32 Church St.
Montclair, NJ 07042
32 Church St.
Montclair, NJ 07042
On the pedestrian promenade lining Montclair's Church Street, the two-story space at #32 never gained traction (though several restaurants tried) until Michael Cetrulo opened Scala del Nonna, which quickly made NJM's 2014 Top 25.
Installing beautiful vaulted ceilings, brighter light and fewer tables than the room could hold, Cetrulo changed the vibe from gloomy to gracious.
The restaurant gods were with me during 2014. In the 27 years that I have been reviewing New Jersey dining establishments, never have I had better luck in finding terrific places to ply my trade.
Scala del Nonna, Montclair, is yet another triumph from prolific restaurateur Michael Cetrulo, and it likely will get even better as it goes along. Upscale Italian here respects tradition, but isn't tethered to it.
Michael Cetrulo opened his first restaurant, Il Mondo Vecchio in Madison, when he was 23.
His latest, Scala del Nonna, is his fifth. All are successful, well run and focused on pleasing the guest. But Scala, a BYO, just may be the most charming and irresistible. The name ("in grandmother's footsteps") is the 46-year-old's tribute to the cooking he learned growing up in Wayne.
Opening his fifth restaurant, onetime whiz kid Michael Cetrulo combines veteran know-how with youthful brio.
What, I asked myself, is a line cook doing in the dining room? In a crimson T-shirt and white apron, the cook was talking to servers and chatting with customers. Muscular, medium height, with dark hair and a boyish face, he looked too young and footloose to be Michael Cetrulo, chef and proprietor of this new Montclair BYO, Scala del Nonna.
All chefs sing hosannas to simplicity these days, but layered flavors and toothsome textures are not so simply achieved. Cetrulo's pappardelle with osso buco ragù, for example, is subtly sparked with finely chopped, brined cherry peppers, orange zest, black olives and a touch of cream.
His Scala co-owners are family, literally or figuratively. Sister Sally Gildea, the general manager, has worked at Scalini Chatham for 15 years. Nephew Anthony Jugan, 26, the chef de cuisine, has cooked in Cetrulo's restaurants for six years. The fourth partner, Emad Armanious, has been a server and captain with Cetrulo for 15 years.
Another Italian restaurant? Yes, indeed, there are many, many in New Jersey already. But Scala del Nonna, which opened in December, is not just "another Italian restaurant."
It's the latest project of chef-entrepreneur Michael Cetrulo, who dreamed up the long-running Scalini Fedeli in Chatham and its younger sibling in Manhattan, as well as Madison's Il Mondo Vecchio and several other innovative places.
The food at Scala del Nonna is different from traditional dishes, but not so much that you won't recognize them. Cetrulo uses the basics as a take-off point, embellishing them to make his food memorable, not just filling.
By way of explanation, let's start with dessert ($9). A perfect example of his approach is the caramelized, orange-scented cannoli, lavish with mascarpone, the flavors of blood orange and raspberries adding to its sweet (but not too sweet) mystique. The wrapper is soft and easily cut with a fork; the aura is pure luxury, a vast improvement on the distant cousin of a concept that inspired it.