Earlier this year, a new, mysterious Italian restaurant popped on my Instagram feed— dish after dish of sleek, authentic fare each with a distinct character. I was relieved to see an Italian restaurant that wasn’t serving the same, tired chicken parm and Fettuccine Alfredo. Instead, the dishes looked lively and inventive. Noticing the Italian dichotomy “Fiorentini” in the handle, I had to know: Who was behind this tempting project?
So, I booked a reservation.
Fiorentini is the newest addition to Park Avenue in Rutherford— the central hub of a town that continues to evolve. Still, the restaurant’s foliage-engulfed façade finds a way to stand out in the developed downtown.
I arrived on a chilly March night in early spring. From the moment I walked in the door, Fiorentini’s unique charm shined: walls adorned with greenery, recycled eucalyptus hanging from the ceiling, a beautiful open kitchen with a marble pass where the chef is sliding carefully-curated plates across the smooth, white and gray surface.
Chef and owner Antonio De Ieso— along with wife and general manager Brenda De Ieso— carefully curate every little thing from the water glasses made from repurposed wine bottles to the handmade pastas and delicately cooked seafood. It’s cliche to say, but the beauty is in the details— artistry that transcends even the best restaurants that the Garden State has to offer.
Fiorentini literally translates to “citizens of Florence” and it is Antonio and Brenda’s vision of a contemporary restaurant that showcases their Tuscan roots. The husband and wife duo grew up just miles apart in Florence, but it wasn’t until 2017 that they organically met in New York City.
Chef Antonio De Ieso was born and raised in Florence, where he found a knack for food and cooking early on. His passion led him to The International Culinary School where he took the first steps of turning this love for food into a career. Soon, his budding career took shape. A fluent speaker of five languages, Antonio worked as a chef in France and the Caribbean before finally landing in New York City.
So much of Antonio’s illustrious career was built in Manhattan— including stints at Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center, the legendary Le Cirque, and the Metropolitan Opera where he served as Executive Chef. It was in this city, and through these restaurants and kitchens, that Antonio whittled away at his craft— honing it all the way down from mere ideas to reality.
Fiorentini co-founder Brenda shares a similar story to that of her husband. She too grew up in Florence. Eventually, moving to New York City where she worked as an event planner. Brenda designed and executed high-end events on New York City’s Wall Street for years, picking up the skills and lessons essential to operate a popular restaurant along the way. Specializing in interior design, it is no surprise Fiorentini is so eloquently put together. Its lush walls and simple yet intricate layout are the results of a natural (and trained) eye for design.
After my first experience at Fiorentini, it wasn’t long before I was back and here’s why:
The restaurant as a whole is a culmination of everything Brenda and Antonio excel at individually. And while the exterior design lures many guests through the front door, it’s that first bite of food that keeps them there. Bites of food so carefully executed, that you are left in awe of what is happening, and it’s only just beginning.
That’s because the root of Fiorentini’s concept is a passion for local ingredients and sustainable practices. Many of the pieces of meat, fish and produce that come through the doors of Fiorentini are special in that they are local to the area. To Antonio, cooking is about utilizing what is simply the best available product in your area, “I like to cook with what is around me. That is my favorite way to cook,” he told me.
In Italy, cooking is a local phenomenon. Artichokes and olives are popular in the cuisines found in Southern Italy due to their local abundance. Where the De Iesos come from in Tuscany, beef and regional cheeses are just some of the foods that define the region. However, much of this type of cooking (and eating) is lost in the New World, but it is chefs like De Ieso who are reviving it.
Each and every day, Antonio and Brenda, along with Chef de Cuisine Kevin Conover whom Antonio met during his career in Manhattan, find new ways to delineate New Jersey to their guests. “Food is regional everywhere for everyone,” Brenda said, a short statement that highlights the philosophy at Fiorentini. As a diner, it’s down right addicting, and it’s why I cannot get over this restaurant.
Fiorentini’s menu revolves around produce that is in season. Being that it is currently summer, much of the dishes are composed of summer produce. Like the Mozzarella di Bufala appetizer, featuring roasted heirloom tomatoes, pickled shallots, black garlic and compressed watermelon— a technique used to intensify the flavor of fruits by vacuum sealing them. The pressure of the vacuum removes the air in between the fruit’s cell walls, which allows for more flavor in less space. You end up with a piece of melon in this case that is sweeter and crisper than it was had you cut it directly off the rind.
Of course, as it’s in the name, this tomato and melon salad is topped off with imported Mozzarella di Bufala, a fresh mozzarella made in Campania using the milk of the local water buffalo. This product is what’s known as a DOP, or, protected designation of origin, meaning it was made using a strict guideline of rules that are hyper-specific to the region and cheesemakers. A DOP can be found on a variety of Italian products, from cheese and olive oil to prosciutto and San Marzano tomatoes.
The perfect contrast to the bright acidity found in the melon salad is the Wagyu steak tartare. Local American Wagyu is diced small and dressed with cornichons, burnt onion and capers before being topped with a farm-fresh egg yolk from Lima Farms in Hillsborough Township, NJ. Crisp olive oil fried crostinis accompany it on the side. As good a tartare as I’ve ever had, with each bite more compelling than the last. The crostini was a pleasant addition to the tartare, but the beef itself held up without it there. An isolation that tartares often crumble when faced with.
I was astonished by the complex, yet simple dishes that stood before me. Dishes at Fiorentini are enigmatic in that they perplexed my palate all while remaining pretty straightforward. This is a paradox that is tough to obtain in food, and it didn’t stop there. “People want to do organic and all this stuff, but it doesn’t matter if they forget to respect the ingredients. Just respect the ingredients,” Antonio told me as he continued to prepare the entrees.
The Parmigiano rose was both peculiar and delicious, revealing the creativity of Chef De Ieso, along with the skills needed to serve handmade pastas at such a capacity. De Ieso and Conover explained to me that the rose starts off as a simple agnolotti making technique. Agnolotti is a Piedemontese-filled pasta, where a smooth filling is piped in a straight line across a sheet of pasta dough. The dough is then rolled over and sealed off— creating an elongated tube of filled pasta. Then, with a pasta cutter, 1 inch long sections are cut, creating miniature pillows of pasta filled with meat, cheese or vegetables.
The Parmigiano rose at Fiorentini is no different in technique, except for negating the cutting process altogether. After piping a Parmigiano fonduta across the sheet of pasta dough and rolling it over, it is simply sealed off on the ends and rolled into a coil rather than being cut. The edges are then trimmed with a roller, allowing for a frilled look. When coiled together, the shape resembles a large rose; hence the name.
Antonio boils the rose in salted water as you would with any pasta, and then places it atop a bed of fresh cherry tomato sauce— a tangy, and brighter version of a classic pomodoro. Finally, he spoons a vibrant green pesto atop the rose, finishing what is a laborious, but fulfilling process. The work is worth it, as the pasta oozes creamy Parmigiano Reggiano when you cut into it, and the pesto and tomato marries together as you dive further into the dish.
Squid ink tagliolini cacio e pepe is a must-order for any fans of uni, also known as sea urchin. Jet-black, handmade pasta is tossed in a classic cacio e pepe sauce, consisting of Pecorino Romano— a sheep’s milk cheese from Lazio— and black pepper. One of the simplest sauces in Italian cooking, but also one of the most convoluted in flavor. The sharp flavor of the pasta sauce is enhanced by a sea urchin puree that Antonio pipes dollops of onto the pasta right before sending it out to the table.
Honestly, I was unsure if I would like this dish. Oftentimes, in my opinion, chefs overuse uni— forgetting of its briny qualities and abrasive characteristics. However, here it was an inviting flavor, and the combination made sense.
Then, amazingly, Chef De Ieso plated a risotto before my eyes. For anyone who has not worked in kitchens before, risotto is not an easy item to have on a menu without cutting corners. To successfully execute a traditional risotto on a menu is noteworthy, and it’s even more impressive to keep it consistent throughout the night. Restaurants like the highly lauded, now defunct, Del Posto revolutionized upscale Italian dining in the states. To keep risotto on their menu, the job was assigned to one person who solely did that for the entirety of the dinner shift. At Fiorentini, though, it is prepared effortlessly as if it were any other menu item.
I stood in awe as a lively orange risotto was set onto a plate and topped with lobster meat and toasted hazelnuts— an aroma that is now cinched in my memory. Antonio picks the plate up to eye level, and gently taps the bottom side, spreading the risotto out to the rest of the plate. Without even taking a bite, I knew this was not only going to be delicious but it was done the right way.
Of course, the risotto far exceeded my expectations. Each granule of rice so perfectly cooked and sauced, with a slightly different texture and flavor than risottos past. That is because this was made with some of the best Carnaroli rice in the world. Fiorentini is importing a special kind of rice called Il Carnaroli Della Riserva San Massimo.
“The first time I tried this rice, I never wanted to make risotto with another kind,” Antonio said. The crop is cultivated in an uncontaminated nature reserve, where the soil is so rich and fertile that manuring is unnecessary. The minerals of the water on the reserve allow for a rice that is unlike any other in flavor, texture and body. It is sort of inexplicable how crucial a role this played in the saffron and orange laced lobster risotto. Mellow yet bold flavors join a texture that’s creamy throughout. Lobster stock infuses itself into the entirety of the dish, acting as a backbone, and the buttery lobster and hazelnuts that are placed atop round out what is the best risotto I’ve ever had, bar none.
Meat and fish entrees are equally as thrilling as their pasta counterparts. Seared Hudson Valley duck breast is served alongside pan-roasted patty pan squash and a tart apricot compote that is composed of both fresh and dried apricots. The apricot duo is cooked down for four hours and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander. Naturally occurring pectin in the apricot’s skin thickens the compote and infuses the flavor of the stone fruit throughout the mixture. This acidic compote, with hints of baking spice, is the perfect complement to the savory duck which is finished with a jus flavored by its bones, lavender and makrut lime leaves.
The Point Pleasant scallops are the embodiment of what summer means in the Garden State. Plump, sweet scallops are seared and served over a bed of fresh, NJ corn and crisp cucumber that is cut to the same size of each kernel of corn. English peas, still in the pod, are entirely edible due to a process of soaking them in ice water to soften the skins. A charred garlic scape is set on the peak of the dish, tangled throughout the components like a snake in the grass, and freshly picked corn sprouts— bursting with flavor— are carefully placed on each scallop. Finally, a lemon jus is drizzled over the whole plate, bringing a much-needed burst of brightness. To me, the summer scallops at Fiorentini are evidentiary of Antonio’s finesse and geniusness in the kitchen. Perhaps one of the greatest displays of raw skill that I have ever seen.
“You must always have dessert.” Antonio smirked as he slid a Meyer lemon tart my way. Once a pastry chef, the desserts at Fiorentini reflect Antonio’s past. A firm pastry tart is filled with luscious Meyer lemon curd and dressed with ribbons of piped Italian meringue that is kissed by a blow torch— making for an aroma reminiscent of toasted marshmallows. Fresh raspberries and dots of lemon gel finish this dessert, which is light and works both as a palate cleanser and a sweet way to finish your meal. Freshly filled cannolis, and housemade vanilla ice cream coated with hot, bold espresso assure that just like the savory dishes, there is a dessert for everyone.
Fiorentini is a sum of its parts. Great food, sound philosophy, sleek design, and above all, a passion for hospitality by the entirety of the staff. It is a restaurant that will bewilder you the second you walk in, only for that feeling to be amplified with each passing second. The vines and plants hanging from the ceilings and studding the walls paint your peripherals as you sit at the table to eat— a subconscious reminder that Fiorentini is about more than just the fare.
I felt at home. Antonio, who makes an effort to engage every guest in meaningful conversation, provides a sense of hospitality that is unmatched. The experience is comforting, and the food is refreshing as it walks in the opposite direction of every red sauce mottled menu in New Jersey. Did it transport me to Florence?
No, it didn’t.
But it wasn’t meant to. Instead, it reminded me that there is beauty right here in this state. Antonio and Brenda De Ieso have figured out a way to demonstrate this to guests in such an eloquent manner that it appears effortlessly to anyone who walks in.
The truth is, many will read this long after the summer menu is gone, and each dish described will be archived; waiting to reappear next summer, or to be retired altogether. But it doesn’t matter because Fiorentini isn’t defined by specific seasons. Instead, it is a masterclass of how technique and intuition can take any given season or any given piece of meat and turn it into something remarkable. It is a reality that is astounding, and as Fiorentini moves through what is now its fourth season, it won’t be long before others regard this masterpiece of an eatery in the same light as I.
Fiorentini is, without a doubt, the best new Italian restaurant of 2022.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.