Gioia Mia: Montclair’s Newest Restaurant Has Big Shoes to Fill

by Peter Candia
fresh pasta in New Jersey

“My joy,” that’s what Gioia Mia translates to. The newest Montclair restaurant occupies the space held down by Chef Ryan DePersio’s Fascino for the last twenty years. Earlier this year, after a series of pop-ups, DePersio decided to sell his flagship restaurant to Fascino General Manager Mary Cumela and Executive Chef Logan Ramirez. The duo has spent the last couple of years working under DePersio at both Fascino and Battello and stood out as the prime candidates for the lauded chef and restaurateur to hand his baby off to.

The full details of the sale and Gioia Mia’s move from a brief pop-up to a permanent spot can be found here.

Walking into Gioia Mia, I didn’t fully know what to expect. I am of the opinion that change is a good thing, but still, I felt saddened that one of the pioneering restaurants of New Jersey’s now-robust dining scene was gone—just like that. However, I felt excited about the new concept, which aimed to remove the confines of Italian cooking that Fascino generally stayed within and open up the restaurant to an array of cultures, cooking methods and ingredients.

Ramirez and Cumela place a focus on seasonality and local produce—a mission we can all get behind. It became clear from the get-go that though much of the decor from Fascino has stuck around (at least for the time being), Gioia Mia is its own thing completely and their plans for the future extend far and wide. And though the original restaurant will never be forgotten by Montclair diners, Gioia Mia deserves to shine on its own without the attached name serving as an asterisk. It’s not “the new Fascino,” it’s just Gioia Mia.

My meal started with bread—warm, buttery Parker house rolls topped with coarse sea salt. The bread comes from Breadsmith in Cranford, NJ and is delivered fresh daily. It is a small detail, certainly, but one that started the meal off on a very high note. The bread itself is sweet and doesn’t require butter at all—it is perfect in its plainest state.

Bread service at Gioia Mia

Warm Parker House Rolls

The rolls prefaced a lovely duo of oysters. On one end, small-cupped Barnegat Bay oysters were served raw with a citrus-packed yuzu granita. The oyster’s meat was plump and pleasantly sweet, so it served as the perfect idea for the fresh, acidic granita to harmonize with. This was a no-brainer for me. Raw oysters already live near perfection and a fun and flavorful condiment can only add to that.

Oysters in Montclair

Raw and Cooked Oysters

On the other side was a cooked oyster. This time a larger-cupped oyster was used. The bivalve was roasted with a topping of Calabrian chili-laced miso breadcrumbs. It was reminiscent of your classic clams oreganata—a favorite from my childhood. The breadcrumbs were packed with umami flavor—the top half crisps under the broiler, while the breadcrumbs at the bottom rehydrate with the juices of the oyster. It was a very impressive bite (or slurp), but what was especially pleasing was the juxtaposition of the two contrasting oysters. Starting with the fresh, lively raw oyster then transitioning to the more luxurious, cooked one was a perfect way to start the meal, priming my tastebuds for what was to come.

One of the offerings that I immediately gravitated towards was the Iberico Ham with melon. I have long praised Spanish ham, especially Iberico, over Italian prosciutto. The funky flavor, firmer texture and drier meat is something I much prefer. Slices of Iberico and spheres of cantaloupe were laid over a fresh salad of fennel, asparagus and an abundance of mint—both in its physical form and in the form of an addicting vinaigrette. These types of appetizers are something I adore. They’re fresh, with flavor combinations that make sense. Above all, they are simple.

iberico ham NJ

Iberico Ham with Melon

While the ham itself boasts a bold, salty flavor, it is also delicately sweet and nutty. Similar to authentic Kobe beef, Iberico pig farmers take immense pride in the production of this ham. Black Iberian pigs are raised on open pastures, feeding only on acorns and natural herbs and grasses. The strict diet is thought to infiltrate the fats in the meat and promote ideal muscle structure. Much of the meat from Iberian pigs is kept fresh, such as pork chops or ribs, but the legs are reserved for curing. Good Iberico, like a proper Parmigiano, is laced with umami. This makes it an ideal candidate to pair with bright flavors. The chorus of spring produce that Ramirez opted to serve with the ham was perfect. The dish shone both visibly and on the palate. A 10 out of 10, as they say.

I was then met with a chicken liver mousse. I won’t lie to you, I generally dislike chicken liver—it’s simply a flavor and texture I am not fond of and I have tried many times to like it. Sometimes, when it’s good enough, my tastes make an exception. This was one of those exceptions. Cumella insisted we try it as it was a recipe she was working on for the better part of a decade, “Logan finally perfected it,” she told me.

Gioia Mia

Chicken Liver Mousse, Brioche, House Pickled Vegetables

Atop the mousse was a solidified layer of rhubarb gelée, bright red in color and bursting with fresh, tart flavor. A small dish of pickled vegetables was served alongside it, with plenty of toasted brioche for building the perfect bite. The mousse itself was velvety, with a rich taste that comes to be expected when eating liver. After all, it is the most nutrient-dense piece of meat on the chicken. However, most of what normally turns me off to liver was softened around the edges and enough cream, flavorings and butter were emulsified into the mixture to make it a praise-worthy item.

Did it convert me into a liver fanatic? No. If anything, it made me even more particular when it comes to the stuff. But, what it did do was remind me that nothing in food is concrete, and foods you don’t like deserve multiple chances if you’re up to it.

Pastas were next and this was the portion of the meal I was most eager for. Pastas were the thing to get at Fascino–and Gioia Mia would have a hard time being successful if they couldn’t continue to serve expertly-crafted pastas. Ramirez, though, is no rookie when it comes to pasta and that became clear immediately after digging my fork into a semolina cavatelli with n’duja butter and broccoli rabe. This was an understandably funk-laced dish as n’duja tends to infuse anything it touches with its pungent, fermented flavor profile. In this case, it was worked into butter to coat each cavatelli with a glossy, savory and addictingly simple sauce.

fresh pasta in montclair

Cavatelli with N’duja Butter

The true star of the pastas was the ricotta gnocchi with cacio e pepe—something that was a staple on the Fascino menu too. Cacio e pepe is a simple sauce that can be hard to get right and even harder to master. For me, someone who has studied Roman cooking (at least briefly), I am increasingly particular about it. At its purest, it is made up of just three components: Black pepper, Pecorino cheese and pasta water—no butter, no oil, and certainly no cream. And while I can be snobby when it comes to this particular dish, I also welcome change and innovation, but only when it’s done right. The gnocchi is a change of course from the usual tonnarelli, which is a semolina pasta made in Lazio that eats like a thicker, chewier spaghetti. Ramirez pan fries the gnocchi, allowing each pillow of pasta to pick up color, flavor and texture. The golden brown morsels are then bathed in the sauce, which is laden with sharp pepper flavor and salty cheese. I was extremely impressed with this dish. It paid respects to the classic while taking liberties in all the right places. Put plainly, this is something that should never leave the menu.

gnocchi montclair

Gnocchi Cacio e Pepe

A mid-course between the pastas and entrees was put before me. A seared scallop, plated fittingly in its own shell with kaffir lime, fresh peas, sea beans and cubes of crispy rice. The scallop was large and Ramirez achieved an ideal sear—complete with a deep mahogany outer crust and a delicately cooked interior. The scallop flaunted a subtly sweet flavor that was enhanced by the briny sea beans and vegetal peas which were left in their pod. Though barely two bites, this dish displayed a prowess seldom seen in dining and one that further showcased why DePersio chose Cumela and Ramirez for the hand-off.

scallop at Gioia Mia

Scallop with Kaffir Lime, Sea Beans, Snap Peas

The Gioia Mia burger is also nothing to scoff at. A thick patty is grilled and topped with Nueske’s bacon, sharp cheddar cheese and a slathering of “special sauce.” The burger and its components are housed on a sesame-seeded brioche bun, also from Cranford’s Breadsmith. This was a perfectly proportioned burger, with exactly the right amount of each respective ingredient. I was especially ecstatic that the burger didn’t come served with an unnecessary salad of warm, mealy tomato, poignant, limp onion and wilted lettuce atop it—something that immediately gets removed every single time I have the displeasure of experiencing it.

The best part, though? The patty itself was properly rested. Too often with thicker burgers, the first bite releases a myriad of juices that leak onto the plate or, in this case, the wooden board. It sogs up the bun and makes for a less-than-desirable eating experience. Ramirez treats the patty like a steak, properly seasoning it and resting it after cooking. This allows for the juices to evenly distribute back into the meat, leaving you with a perfect interior and a leak-free burger.

best burger in Montclair

The Gioia Mia Burger

When dining at restaurants where I have high expectations for, I will always order the chicken. “Really, the chicken?” Really, the chicken. Chicken breast gets a really bad wrap and understandably so. When done poorly—which it often is—it comes off as dry and flavorless. However, if properly seasoned, cooked and rested, chicken breast is one of the single greatest pieces of meat one could have. Hot take, but those who disagree probably haven’t had a great one and that’s just that. Lucky for you, Gioia Mia has you covered.

Chicken breast is slowly cooked skin side down, allowing the skin and fat to slowly render into a crisp while the interior gently comes up to temp. It is served atop a bed of couscous, a Peruvian-inspired pepper purée and wilted Napa cabbage. And while the accompaniments are important, they simply do not matter if the chicken isn’t up to par. I want to reiterate, when done poorly, chicken breast is plain dreadful. Most important to its elegance is a proper interior temperature. When cooked correctly, it is moist and flavorful but can quickly turn dry and grainy if left on the heat for even thirty seconds too long. The line between under-done and over-done is never finer than it is with chicken, and nailing it is of the utmost importance. Ramirez, of course, succeeded. I’m glad to report that Gioia Mia passed The Chicken Test™ with flying colors.

chicken Gioia Mia

Chicken, Cous Cous, Huancaina

Though I was much too full, my sweet tooth insisted on dessert and rum-infused crème brûlée was just what the doctor ordered. Pretty much your classic version of the dessert, with a crisp shell of burnt sugar encasing a smooth, creamy custard. I was delighted to finish my meal this way, though I do feel the coating of sugar on top could have been slightly thicker, but that’s if I’m getting nitpicky.

creme brulee new jersey

Rum Crème Brûlée

Gioia Mia is a welcome replacement for a restaurant as beloved as Fascino, and while DePersio’s flagship restaurant is currently being etched into the history books of New Jersey’s dining scene, a new story is simultaneously being written. By selling to two of his employees rather than an outside force, the space is in the best possible hands for continued success. Some pieces of Fascino remain, but Gioia Mia, by all means, is its own concept and deserves to be treated as such. Mary Cumela and Logan Ramirez know what it takes to continue the magic that has been seen for two decades at 331 Bloomfield Avenue and it is abundantly clear when dining at Gioia Mia and experiencing the cuisine for yourself.

About the Author/s

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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.

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