A brilliant 26-year-old chef is making major waves at this new Italian spot
Vicki Hyman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Robbie Felice has cooked across the country and around Europe, but he grew up in New Jersey. So the Sussex County resident knew when he was opening Viaggio in Wayne last August that serving chicken would be mandatory.
“It’s just kind of a Jersey thing,” he maintained.
“If you went out to dinner and there was no chicken on the menu, most Jersey people would walk out the door.”
But what he does with the Lancaster Amish chicken ($29) encapsulates the virtues of Viaggio. His vision of “alla cacciatore” merits its quotation marks on the menu because it is far from the usual rendition.
A feature is the chicken skin, with a blend of house-made bread crumbs, thyme, rosemary, butter, olive oil, Parmigiano and fontina cheese piped beneath it. Then it’s basted, roasted and emerges from the oven “super crispy,” as Felice puts it. The meat, which has been soaked in beer brine for 24 hours at the beginning of the process, is rewardingly juicy.
“I told myself it had to be the best chicken anyone ever had,” said Felice.
You may well think he has accomplished his mission with this memorable modern take on rustic Italian, served with a variety of “finds” from around the kitchen, including pieces of mushrooms, other vegetables, salumi scraps and whatever else comes to hand, along with chicken confit and premium polenta.
If your fondest dining desires go beyond chicken, no worries. The menu is stocked with spectacular options, a list that’s led by the fazzoletti ($20 and worth every cent). Beautiful and ethereal, it’s practically a spiritual experience.
Handkerchief-like pieces of pasta are folded over a variety of herbs, including mint, chervil, basil and parsley. The preserved Meyer lemon butter sauce adds just enough tart silkiness to enhance the dish, which is topped with an exclamation point of microgreens. Like the fazzoletti, most of the pasta is made in-house, with the exception of linguine and buccatini, which are imported from Italy.
Other dishes to try include the gnocchi ($20), a 50-50 combo of potato and ricotta (which adds to the fluffiness quotient). It’s served with a duck ragu; duck leg meat mixed with sofrito (cooked-down carrot, onion and celery), red wine and house-cured pancetta. The duck is cooked for four to five hours, and then the whole dish is topped with shavings of ricotta salata for an accent.
Interested in seafood? Try the branzino al cartoccio ($29) cooked in parchment to incorporate the flavors of olives and tomatoes. For beef, it’s the Piedmontese tagliata ($31), lean but tender, served with Cipollini onions in a sweet and sour sauce.
He’s only 26, but Felice is accomplished beyond his years because he hasn’t wasted a second while learning his craft. His father, Joe Felice, a partner in Viaggio, has had several restaurants in New Jersey.
“Before I could walk, I was in restaurants, they have always been a part of my life,” said the chef, who went on to the Culinary Institute of America. He continued to learn, working at Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York and the Batali-Bastianich outpost B&B Ristorante in Las Vegas.
The chef’s table in front of Viaggio’s open kitchen is the vantage point for those interested in seeing Felice work his magic, but don’t think you can do what he does when you go home, kids. He gave me detailed explanations of several dishes, including the chicken, and the steps that he goes through — some of which can’t be seen from the chef’s table because they involve prep — are daunting for non-professionals, to say the least.
Desiree Morrison does the desserts, including chocolate budino ($12) a cakelike pudding (or maybe a pudding-like cake) enhanced by salted caramel and meringue. After a big meal, that might be a bit more than you can handle, so consider the more modest olive oil cake ($9) with house-made vanilla gelato, or perhaps just peppermint gelato ($11) with peppermint bark.
The odds are that you’ll see words you don’t know scattered around the menu like confetti, but staffers not only are well-informed about the nuances of the food, but also able to impart that knowledge to their customers, which is refreshing. That’s a tribute to manager Jin Lee, who moved to New Jersey from Las Vegas, where he worked with Felice.
The atmosphere is the right match for the food. The interior, produced by Lauren DiGenova at LRD Design, combines reclaimed barn wood and brick wall treatment (Felice was inspired by walls he saw in Florence and Bologna) with strings of white lights for a Tuscan farmhouse atmosphere that takes patrons from an ordinary northern New Jersey strip mall to a festive evening in the Italian countryside.
Did you forget your wine? It can be ordered from a local liquor store, which delivers. For bargain hunters, there’s a prix fixe $53 available Sunday through Thursday only.
The name Viaggio means journey in Italian. It involves a voyage of discovery that’s worth taking for anyone looking for a different take on Italian food that will have them coming back for more.