New Jersey chef, Robbie Felice, of Osteria Crescendo in Westwood and Viaggio in Wayne has built quite the resume of accolades in recent years. Maybe you are tired of seeing his name everywhere— you shouldn’t be. Every time I have thought to myself that Felice has hit his ceiling, he breaks right through it, only to reveal an even higher one. His constant drive to always impress with the most clever of innovations is admirable. His recent quest? An underground tasting menu hosted informally at his Wayne restaurant, Viaggio. This might be his most impressive feat yet.
I originally heard about these private dinners through Felice’s Instagram. I knew right then that I had to experience it for myself. I called the restaurant and set it up. Felice was adamant that I come into this dinner open to anything—easy enough. So, I booked my dinner, and made my way over to Wayne with an empty stomach and an open mind.
In a pandemic-driven world, chefs everywhere have been left to innovate in any form imaginable. Felice, yet again, took innovation a step further. The Underground Tasting at Viaggio in Wayne is a perfect opportunity for those who are uncomfortable going out to restaurants right now. A meal where it is simply you, your peers, and the chef is both intimate and as safe as could be.
To say the least, this meal was like nothing I had ever experienced. With Viaggio currently closed on Tuesdays, it gave Felice a unique opportunity to capitalize on an unfortunate situation. When you arrive at Viaggio for your meal, it will appear to be closed—because it technically is. A locked door leads you to question if you perhaps mixed up your days, but a simple knock will reveal Felice in his signature white kitchen shoes to welcome you in. It becomes clear then that this will be a meal that leaves you feeling exclusive. The intimacy of an empty restaurant does everything to bolster that feeling. Yes, it really is just you and Chef Felice for this meal; no random guests, and no servers. This is a “chef’s tasting” in its rawest form.
A dimly lit restaurant towers before you, unlike the atmosphere that the critically acclaimed Viaggio normally possesses on any given night. An empty dining room is complete with stacked chairs and tables pushed off to the side. Centered in front of you is the chef’s bar—it remains the only part of the dining room not engulfed by the dark. It’s eerie and even confusing. However, confusion is seldom a negative feeling when it is being brought to you by Felice; I’ve come to learn that.
Seconds into taking your seat, Felice hands you the auxiliary cord and tells you to play whatever music you’d like. It becomes apparent—this is no ordinary night out to eat. Something as seemingly irrelevant as putting the choice of music in your hands does so much to engage you in the meal before ever having a sip of water, or opening a bottle of wine.
Almost immediately, the first course is placed in front of you, and your experience begins. If you have eaten at one of Felice’s restaurants before, I do not need to convince you how truly delicious his food is. Still, his ability to innovate creates a meal unlike one that you have ever had at Viaggio or Osteria Crescendo, all while remaining incredibly familiar to his signature style. I have spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint Felice’s style. I was dead set on “Italian with modern influence,” but this meal proved that to be only half of the story. Felice orchestrates a rarity in culinary style through his food and presentation.
“I guess you could call this a Caprese salad of sorts,” is what Felice told me when placing the first course in front of me. It was a bass crudo, and obviously not a Caprese salad. The confusion kicked back in, only to be shattered to pieces by my first bite. I shouldn’t have been shocked that Felice was able to make bass remind me of a salad consisting of cheese, tomatoes, and basil; yet, I still was.
Felice explained that he was looking to make something elegant that could still satisfy the simplest of eaters. He marinates New Jersey black sea bass in Meyer lemon before coating the lightly flavored fish in a tomato breadcrumb. The dish is brought together by a basil crema, and finished perfectly with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. A satisfying crunch from the breadcrumb combined with the richness of a good olive oil is bound to create something delicious—and mind-blowingly nuanced. This is how I felt when a piece of fish managed to remind me of summers on my back patio eating cheese and fresh tomatoes.
Another profound dish of the evening was his octopus carpaccio. A wafer-like crostini topped with thinly sliced octopus, brown butter mustard, pickled peppers and a lemon gel was aimed to please. Presented as finger food, Felice carefully places the crostini atop a small glass, creating the illusion that it is floating right before your eyes. No knife, no fork, just delicious food presented whimsically. Always making room for playfulness is something Felice is utterly exceptional at.
As great as the early courses were, I could not hold my excitement any longer for whatever pasta was going to be placed in front of me. Pasta is where Felice shines. As no surprise to me, the pasta courses were extraordinary. However, what perplexed me is that they might have been two of the most impressive pastas that I have ever been served at one of Felice’s restaurants. In fact, they might have been two of the most impressive pastas I’ve ever had anywhere in the world; giving New York and Europe’s best restaurants a run for their money.
A bowl with three raviolis floating in a broth was placed before me. Felice called it “mushroom ravioli in a mushroom ramen brodo.” That’s a mouthful. I like fresh ravioli, and I like ramen, but I was not sure how the two would be combined. Again, The ravioli provided a strong Italian backbone to the dish, but the star was the broth. A crystal clear liquid with a deep brown hue, the broth was both light and rich at the same time. Clear notes of soy and yuzu—something that may seem more in line with Japanese cuisine—perfectly complemented the dish. A true show-stopper. I thought to myself that this had to be the peak of the meal; wrong again.
I have said in the past that Felice makes the best bolognese I have ever had. I studied Italian cuisine intensely in both culinary school and my career thereafter, and no bolognese from even the highest-rated restaurants holds a candle to his. I would never change a thing about it; it is genuinely perfect. So, of course, Felice had to change it.
He constantly takes things that are seemingly perfect and improves upon them when he could simply serve the same thing over and over again to absolutely no complaints. But perfection for the sake of duplication is not what Felice is about.
Laughing to himself, Felice slid a plate in front of me and murmured “ramen noodles with miso bolognese and nori.” I thought it was a joke. Was Felice about to ruin something that I love so much? I’m sure you could guess that, once again, my doubts were completely silenced. The familiarity of his signature bolognese was there, but it was donning a different outfit. Unctuous, fatty ragu coats, thin, elastic-like ramen noodles. The dish was finished with ribbons of roasted seaweed, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. I was dumbfounded. I still am, days later, as I struggle to put into words how positively special this was to me. Felice took something that was ideal and made it better. Something I thought was impossible. When it comes to food, “impossible” is not in Robbie Felice’s vocabulary. It never was.
I feel it necessary to emphasize how different this experience was from a normal meal at Viaggio or Osteria Crescendo. At either, you are always going to receive the highest quality of food, immaculate service and a lively atmosphere. This is different. The food sings familiarities of Felice’s normal fare but goes off the cuff in a way that would not normally be seen on one of his dinner menus. It is unique, but that should not scare you away.
No servers also provides an experience that is virtually impossible any other night at Viaggio or Osteria Crescendo: a conversation with Robbie Felice. He is mysterious, and many people, including myself for a long time, describe him as “quiet.” Usually, he stays in the kitchen and cooks, because it is what he does best. He has told me in the past that the last thing that he wants to be is a “dining room chef.” Fair enough. However, The Underground Tasting at Viaggio lets you get a front-row seat inside Felice’s brain. You hear stories, you see the cooking and the plating and he tells you how he thought up everything. This eight-course meal becomes a classroom while also taking you on an adventure. This is something bound to satisfy anyone with the slightest interest in the food world.
As I finished my last bites of food, reality began to set back in. It went back to being a normal Tuesday night, and all I was left with were the memories of what I had just experienced. The music faded, and I was left to ponder how I just had one of the best meals in my life, alone in a closed restaurant.
For just a few hours, Felice used what he’s best at to distract me from everything else going on in the world. A restaurant felt normal to me for the first time in nine months. It is a feeling that is impossible to accurately put into writing. Felice proved why he is one of the best chefs that New Jersey has to offer. To me, he is of the best that the entire country has to offer.
Before I left, I had to ask what the deal was with all of the ramen inspiration throughout the meal. The ramen noodles, the broths, the Japanese influenced flavors—it was all so out of the ordinary for an Italian restaurant, especially one in New Jersey. “Let’s just say it’s a hint at what’s to come,” is what Felice told me through a juvenile grin. I asked what that meant. Felice declined to answer.