—Chef Anthony Bucco gives his newest restaurant the farm-fresh treatment of Italian cuisine.
The choice to return to one’s roots is never easy. I mean that not literally, because Chef Anthony Bucco was born and raised in New Jersey, but figuratively in regards to the soulful turn his culinary career has taken. I say this on the basis of his new restaurant, Felina, which by no means takes a backseat to his illustrious past, but rather takes on a looser, less precious persona that I think serves both him and his food well.
If you’ve been following the chef scene in New Jersey, you already know who Bucco is. For the less food-obsessed readers, he once ran the kitchens of Uproot in Warren and Stage Left in New Brunswick, before reopening the historic Ryland Inn—an internationally-recognized dining landmark—and most recently, held the title of Executive Chef at Restaurant Latour before stepping down last year. To put it simply, no one is as familiar with the state’s culinary landscape or has had more of a hand in its evolution, than him.
Now Bucco has, for the first time, become a chef-restaurateur in Bergen County, opening up Felina in Ridgewood just a few months ago. The menu is Italian in nature, full of pastas and vegetables that highlight seasonality, sustainability and utilize the offerings of nearby farmers and suppliers. Bucco says the dishes at Felina “deceptively rich,” but I insist they are deceptively simple and their intentionally terse descriptions support that sentiment. The space itself is warmly-lit, done up with a mix of reclaimed wood and industrial finishes. The dining room seats 120, consisting of an 18-person bar area, exclusive chef’s counter with its own tasting menu, a retired bank vault for private parties and there’s also a soon-to-be-open rooftop bar.
Unlike The Ryland Inn where there’s a narrative spanning over 200 years, Felina’s newfound identity was one that only longtime friend and business associate Frank Cretella of Landmark Hospitality could cultivate. He balanced a once nondescript office space with wood flooring and exposed brick to make guests feel right at home, in an urban-meets-Italian countryside kind of vibe with steel countertops and a modern, oversized light fixture hanging atop the bar. “When you come to Felina, we’ve essentially created a story that we want you to believe existed before we ever opened,” Bucco explained, “And that speaks volumes to Frank’s ability to see something that didn’t previously exist.”
he Felina “brand,” as Bucco calls it, also consists of Chef de Cuisine Martyna Krowicka who he brought with him from Restaurant Latour, beverage director and Iron Shaker-winner Christopher James who’s studied under the likes of famed New Jersey mentors like Chef Tom Colicchio and Jockey Hollow’s Chris Cannon, and seasoned vet Beverly Lacsina who leads the service team.
Felina, compared to establishments like Restaurant Latour or The Ryland Inn, is very much a restaurant of today. Yes, they share the same fine dining principles such as impeccable service and a strong attention to detail, but there’s a lack of formality that I find refreshing and have observed being pioneered by many new restaurants popping up around the state.
In this more casual, downtown Ridgewood setting craft cocktails get to shine just as much as the food coming out of the kitchen. James’ beverage program at Felina is supported by a heavily Italian wine list and a lineup of technique-driven cocktails featuring lots of bitter notes and citrus, not overly sweet simple syrups. The Breakfast Martini is an appealing take on a famous drink made with lemon juice and orange marmalade. He’s also torching a cedar plank for Felina’s version of a gold Negroni with St. George Dry Rye Reposado, Del Professore Bianco and Avèze. Suburbanites can find other fun variations on familiar cocktails including an Italian twist on a Venetian Mai Tai using Nardini Mandorla (made from cherry juice and bitter almond) and blood orange liqueur.
But if there’s anything that unites all of Chef Bucco’s projects, past or present, it’s his respect for ingredients. There are several bright and fresh appetizers to choose from including Prosciutto di Parma tossed with blood orange segments, arugula and pine nuts or the tri-colored roasted beets with housemade ricotta, fennel tuile, beet juice reduction and flakes of sea salt. My favorite, however, was the artfully arranged black bass crudo which Chef Bucco expressed will change according to what’s available. The fish is treated simply with a marinade of white soy, olive oil and lime juice accompanied by dehydrated black olives, seaweed tempura, radishes and black olive caramel.
The smoked paprika-crusted creste de gallo or “rooster’s crest” with pork sausage, roasted garlic and kale falls under the Primi category of the menu, and is reminiscent of a Sunday supper at grandma’s—that is, if she was hand-making her own pasta and sausage from scratch. The dish reflects an understanding of Italian-American cuisine that doesn’t so much reinvent tradition but rather riffs on a forward-thinking sensibility. “If there’s a dish to me that speaks to that ‘Italian-American’ culture it’s this one,” said Bucco. Each ingredient is in perfect ratio to one another; ribbons of wilted kale, crumbled sausage and perfectly cooked pasta that holds up to its hearty counterparts. That’s not to exclude Felina’s other smartly varied pasta options including lasagna made with mushrooms, thyme and caramelized onions; duck bolognese sprinkled with hazelnut gremolata; and rigatoni with guanciale, tomato and Calabrian chili.
For mains, Bucco’s seasonally-inspired style of cooking is most evident in the already favored day-boat scallops with apples, parsley root and kale sprouts; air-chilled Amish chicken served on top of a bed of fregola finished with swirls of salsa verde; and Berkshire pork with roasted cabbage and creamy polenta.
In addition to a few customary desserts—tiramisu with lemon sponge, an olive oil cake with orange marmalade—there’s something on the menu that reads unfamiliar. At first glance the budino evokes a pudding, coming to the table small in size but robust in its offering. The texture falls somewhere in between a custard and a mousse while the flavor is rich in an ode to Nutella. Each spoonful is divided by silky pudding, whipped cream, salted caramel sauce and crunchy cinnamon streusel. Call it what you want, the budino comes together on the tongue like the best chocolate cream pie and graham cracker crust you’ve ever had.
In a way, Felina picks up right where Bucco left off. And while the new restaurant is a departure from his fine dining past, the contemporary yet accessible atmosphere is what makes Felina feel like a homecoming of sorts. The menu is still refined, emphasizing ingredients that are sustainable and locally sourced—they’re just toned down in style (and price) for the everyday palate. There’s also no doubting the technical skills of Chef Bucco’s kitchen crew or service staff, who keep the place running like a well-oiled machine. But whether by design or happenstance, Felina is all about heart and as far as the food is concerned, the focus is heavy on feeling.