Mario Batali is always frustratingly vague in his response to that often-asked query: When are you — as a Rutgers alum and former stromboli maker in New Brunswick — returning to New Jersey? When are you going to open a restaurant for us?
Batali makes no promises, yet remains diplomatic. But as someone who has posed the question to the beloved Croc-wearing Italian chef, my gut tells me the real answer is less than optimistic. In New Jersey, a liquor license is a scary-crazy business expense, even for a man with a restaurant empire. Plus, for Batali, opportunities beckon elsewhere.
I fear the closest New Jersey may come to a Batali restaurant is when a Batali protege opens a space.
Robbie Felice is the chef here; he grew up in Wayne and has spent much of his career in a Batali kitchen. Felice and his father, restaurateur Joe Felice, opened the space last year in a strip mall along Hamburg Turnpike. The decor is meant to convey the feel of a Tuscan farmhouse, an undoubtable challenge but, in New Jersey, not an uncommon challenge.
Viaggio, with its exposed brick archways and wood laminate floors, brings to mind an updated pizzeria or trattoria. But each table features a jar of pickled vegetables. And the pottery — those gorgeous, dark-hued bowls — adds an air of mystery to the appetizers. That framed copper pot in the hallway is a most clever decorating trick, an idea worth stealing.
Chef Felice is a young man, but one with a layered resume, including many restaurant stints in Europe. He also has worked for Batali for years, first in New York at Babbo, and more recently in Las Vegas, where he served as sous chef for the Batali Bastianich Hospitality Group. In Vegas, Felice ran the salume program, which cannot be a small thing for the Batali empire there.