03 Jul NJ Monthly- Captain of His Own Ship: Felina Reviewed
It’s not normal for us to review a restaurant within three months of its opening. We like to give a new restaurant time to breathe and figure itself out. But when a star of the New Jersey food scene opens a new restaurant, it’s hard to sit around and wait.
Felina is Anthony Bucco’s first starring role as restaurant co-owner as well as executive chef. After Felina opened at the end of December, I visited three times in late winter and spring, and I’m pleased to report I was right to break the rule and visit so soon.
Bucco has led a number of notable New Jersey kitchens, including the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station and Restaurant Latour at the Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg. Felina is the first restaurant of which he’s a co-owner (with Frank and Jeanne Cretella of Landmark Hospitality). Felina occupies a former bank. The front part of the bank, where the tellers were, is grand, with high ceilings and tall windows. It will be Felina’s catering space, a prime wedding venue.
The rear portion, where the offices were, has been gutted and transformed: retro-chic leavened with generous floral displays, banquettes, and tables with luxurious amounts of room between.
Thanks to clever lighting—a cloud of white globes blithely floating at different heights—the free-standing, triangular bar feels like its own special space, even with the open kitchen steps away. The only odd part of the restaurant is a strange, dark hollow of an area that could make a good semi-private party space, but needs more lights to keep it from feeling creepy.
The wood and metal used throughout the restaurant hold their own secrets: Some of the metal (including the bar top) is reclaimed from the bank vault, while the wood comes from a collapsed barn on the Ryland Inn property.
Bucco is a gifted chef known for his elaborate tasting menus, but his goal with Felina has been to create a more casual restaurant with food you can eat any day of the week, not just on special occasions.
Luckily, eating there on a weeknight, the food is good enough to make it feel special, yet relaxed—the best kind of dining experience.
On two of my three visits, warm, pillowy focaccia, redolent of rosemary, arrived at the table along with house-cultured butter. The third night, there was nothing, which made for a sad start.
I distracted myself with the list of playful yet well-balanced cocktails, created by one of New Jersey’s most talented mixologists, Chris James (who has since left the restaurant). My favorite was the Breakfast Martini, a smooth-edged, gin-based drink balanced with lemon juice and a bitter finish, courtesy of house-made orange marmalade. One sip of this and even Paddington Bear might reconsider what to keep under his hat.
Starters are shareable and simple, such as a pile of rosy, thin-sliced prosciutto formed into a wreath ornamented with pomegranate seeds and slices of blood orange.
A plate of bucatini felt like the love child of spaghetti carbonara and cacio e pepe, with grated, preserved egg and crunchy breadcrumbs adding texture to the creamy sauce.
Seasonality and food provenance are buzzwords thrown around by fast-food chains these days. Bucco and co-chef Martyna Krowicka, who was his chef de cuisine at Restaurant Latour, put their money where their (and our) mouths are. Dishes change with the seasons, as an earthy winter dish of black-bass crudo was transformed into a spring tableau with pickled, unripe strawberries, bright yogurt sauce, and paper-thin pumpernickel croutons by my late April visit.
The kitchen’s respect for seasonal vegetables and local grains goes beyond ramps, picked in the wild by the staff and roasted on a creamy pizzette Bianca, or the tender stalks of bright-green local asparagus tossed with rye gnocchi. The gnocchi are pan seared on one side, the browned exterior adding a smart layer of nuttiness to the creamy dish. The rye flour—a clever twist on traditional potato gnocchi—is milled not far away, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Local farms are showcased in dishes such as the Berkshire pork with Bloody Butcher grits. Ignore one of the most unappetizing names in menu history to enjoy the creamy, purple-specked grits made from an heirloom variety of corn. The pork comes from Roaming Acres Farm in Andover. With the restaurant’s devotion to nose-to-tail eating, one week you might be served a piece of Berkshire pig tenderloin, another a rib chop, depending on what part of the animal the kitchen has been butchering.
Service was thoughtful and attentive, save for one waiter who lost my table’s favor the minute he broke my cardinal rule by welcoming a group of women of a certain age with a perky, “How are we tonight, young ladies?” (Note: The only people who should ever receive this greeting are girls under the age of 12.)
But I digress. The crostata (rhubarb, when I ate it in the spring) needed more fruit filling, but luckily had a flaky and crumbly crust that we happily nibbled through.
That said, order the tiramisu. Forget your grandmother’s version (if you had an Italian grandmother) and sink your spoon through the espresso-soaked, lemony sponge layers and the mascarpone until you hit the unexpected little crunch of white chocolate feuilletine, a delightful addition. (Forgive me for eliminating the element of surprise.)
I look forward to visiting Felina again, whether it’s for a celebratory Saturday-night meal or just a quiet evening at the bar with a pleasing cocktail and a few shared plates with friends.