When you meet Chef Robbie Felice, the first thing you’ll notice—other than how young he is—is his high food IQ. The talented young chef opened his first restaurant in Wayne last year, and his vision is putting Passaic County on the New Jersey foodie map in a big way. Felice, who is just 26, has some real experience under his belt and aims to bring ‘old country’ Italian cooking with a modern twist to diners at Viaggio.
Felice’s story is one of passion and pure work ethic. But beyond that, the Sussex County-native has spent nearly his entire life around great cooking. Growing up, Felice’s earliest memories of food come from the homecooking of his grandmothers, who no doubt still inspire him today. In addition to this, Felice’s father, Joe Felice, has been a successful restaurateur his entire life and today, the two are partners at Viaggio.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2011, Felice spent five years cooking across the country and in Europe. Things really started to take off when he began working for Mario Batali, completing an externship at Babbo in Manhattan—where he worked with Chef Frank Langello—and B&B Ristorante in Las Vegas. Felice also spent time working for other notable chefs like the Michelin-starred Sergio Herman in The Netherlands and Ryan DePersio at the widely-known Fascino in Montclair. After all that, the ambitious chef found himself opening his first restaurant at Wedgewood Plaza in Wayne, juxtaposed beside a list of the usual strip mall suspects. But Viaggio you’ll find, is anything but ordinary.
The unassuming facade won’t turn any heads, but the BYO restaurant’s rustic interior aesthetic quickly makes one forget the fact that they’re in New Jersey. Reclaimed barn wood and brick line the walls of the 78-seat space along with Edison bulbs and a chef’s table which highlights the venue’s open kitchen. Though the Tuscan farmhouse-like atmosphere may give one an Italian countryside illusion, the room carries an electric Manhattan vibe, one that’s indicative of the energetic young chef inside.
At Viaggio you won’t find typical Italian-American clichés or an overabundance of “parm” variants, but what you will find is a menu that pays homage to “how food is eaten in Italy.” Felice oversaw the charcuterie program at B&B and takes the lead in Viaggio’s curing room; the salumi menu impresses with its duck prosciutto and bresaola. The menu also features a “primi” selection of pastas and a “secondi” selection of entrées, most notably of which is the range-free Lancaster Amish chicken “al Mattone” which is served with fettunta and peas. The housemade pastas come together well, particularly the local ramps with tagliatelle pasta and parmigiano reggiano which Felice credits for getting him through culinary school even though he ironically used to skip class to sell them in NYC. In Italian, Viaggio means “journey” and it’s safe to say that Felice’s own journey while eventful, has only just begun.