No one ever really says, "we went out for Italian" as they would say "we had Thai," because it's generally accepted that everyone eats Italian food often. Mainstream Italian cuisine is perhaps no longer something exotic, but darn delicious and a staple of the American diet.
It's also a buyer's market, and when folks in The Caldwells dine out and want Italian, they have dozens of choices awaiting them, ranging from casual to semi-fancy, small to just-about-gigantic. Heck, when did the Caldwells become Little Italy?
The recently opened Vitella's Cucina on Clinton Road in West Caldwell stands out in this crowded scene, with an interesting pedigree to "boot" (no pun intended).
Atmosphere and Decor
The inside of Vitella's is surprisingly authentic to dining in Italy: a huge canopy on the lunch/food preparation side, archways and wall decor in the main dining room simulate dining in a courtyard (villa).
Pleasant lighting and a warm color palette pleasantly add to the ambiance, as did the sound of a soccer game coming from a television near the entrance—a sure sign of real pisanos ("Forza Milano!"). Music in the main dining area eschewed the typical bombastic opera for more lively and current Italian artists (think Eros).
On the night I dined, the clientele varied: a quartet of older ladies were in one corner catching up with each other, a couple of younger guys were rapidly depleting their plates and a young couple was sipping wine nearby.
A Lot to Think About
The regular menu came with a separate sheet of specials that was nearly an entire menu in its own right.
Each contained tried-and-true, reliable Italian restaurant fare (gnocchi, "Nonna's Spaghetti and Meatballs and Sausage") as well as surprises such as truffle macaroni and cheese and butternut squash ravioli. The New Zealand rack of lamb that was carried past me on the way to a table is somewhere between. Naturally, there's a full complement of pasta dishes—with the main ingredient made fresh on premises and "hand rolled" (there's a difference).
There's truly something on the menu for everyone... and where else could you order "Vitella's Vitello"?
The desert selections are equally expansive—quite possibly on one's waistline—and are on display in a glass case.
All of the possibilities made deciding what to order tricky, and after being this close to shrimp scampi, I settled on an antipasti (appetizer) of lobster bisque ($4.99) from the specials menu, and a main course of veal Milanese ($16) from the regular menu. The beverage of choice was a bottle of San Bendetto sparkling water ($5).
Like lasagna, lobster bisque is all over the map stylistically, and as part of an overall meal, it's best when done light, complementing a main entree. When heavy, it's overpowering, leaving little room to enjoy the rest of a meal.
Happily, the bisque was more the former. It was smooth, with no chunks of arrogosta (lobster) to be found, but was so flavorful you'd swear there were a couple of freshly broiled and buttered lobsters in the bowl.
The lighter base carried the flavor well. As an appetizer, it worked perfectly and is one of the best I've ever tasted. It was almost sad to see it end, and the waiter may have sensed this, as he smiled as he waited for me to fish out the last spoonful.
After watching the bisque bowl depart my table, it was time for the main course.
The veal Milanese was generous in portion; two large breaded and pan-fried veal cutlets were served on a bed of mesculin salad with cherry tomatoes and red onion.
The flavor of the dish was intensified by the salad tossed with a homemade red wine vinegar that wasn't too strong and served well as a midpoint between the warm veal and cool salad.
The veal was tender, and the breading was just crispy enough to create a nice balance to the lettuce. It also didn't last long pitted against my fork.
Behind the Scenes
Upon meeting them, it's clear that the warm and inviting decor of Vitella's is a direct reflection of the owners themselves.
I ask why they've moved their business to West Caldwell from Nutley and the answer was partly because of their expanding business.
"I wanted a full restaurant," Executive Chef Franco Vitella said.
His wife, Ally, added: "We were this Italian deli where two people could fit in, catering for thousands."
Thousands? While they had a nice following around town, Vitella's reputation had quickly traveled into New York. During the last few years, the little Italian deli catered high-profile events for the U.S. Open, Google, the PBS network and the Grammy concert tour, among others, including the launch party for the new "Yes Virginia" holiday special.
The Verona residents knew of the West Caldwell store location from having dined at the former restaurant that occupied its space and even had one of their children's christening parties at the former establishment. When it became available, they were seriously interested.
Like its decor, Vitella's staff is a decidedly family affair. The couple is joined by Franco's parents, Carmella and Giovanni, in the cooking department (both are experienced professional cooks). Giovanni can even provide impromptu entertainment in the dining room.
"The other night, my father-in-law was making the pasta, and he had his little hat on, and he suddenly started dancing the tarantella... everyone loved it," Ally Vitella said.
Every now and then, one may also catch brief glimpses of the youngest Vitellas, Franco and Ally's children, Isabella and Gianfranco.
At-A-Glance: Vitella's Cucina Ristorante, Brick Oven Pizzeria, Deli and Catering
Address: 40 Clinton Road, West Caldwell
Web site: www.vitellas.com
Serving: lunch (sit down/takeout), dinner and catering
Reservations: recommended, but not required
Recommended: The lobster bisque
Bottom line: Vitella's Cucina is Italian done right, a perfect combination of big-city cuisine and small-world charm.