It’s a New Jersey classic: pizzeria in the front, sit-down restaurant in the back. The formula is nothing new, yet the niche style of restaurant always seems to impress me. This is increasingly true for Russillo in West Caldwell, NJ, where hospitality meets red sauce classics to create a casual yet impactful dining experience. Whether you’re looking for a Friday night in front of the TV with takeout or venturing out with your favorite bottle of wine for a full-service dinner, Russillo has you covered in every facet.
Sure, to many potential diners, Russillo might seem like a pizzeria first and foremost. And while the pizza is exceptional—with a crisp plum tomato and basil-laced grandma pie to note—the entrees and appetizers are what keep me coming back again and again.
The menu is rife with Italian-American classics, all with an extra flair of creativity and poise to boot. Take the appetizers, for example—comforting, familiar, but innovative enough to wow. I enjoyed the fired-to-a-crisp calamari Enzo. Crispy and golden calamari is tossed with a white wine sauce, hot cherry peppers, sautéed mushrooms, garlic and arugula. The dish is finished off with a drizzle of hot honey.
For me, calamari is always a no-brainer, yet I still find myself bored of the same old fried calamari and marinara sauce. Russillo innovates, though, serving you something familiar enough to provide comfort, while beckoning you with something new. This is a calamari anyone can enjoy with it’s sweet and zingy sauce, savory mushrooms and touch of heat from the cherry peppers.
Russillo keeps the ball moving when it comes to appetizers with more seafood options to match. A fresh, lump Maryland crab cake comes adorned with lemony beurre blanc and simply steamed broccoli. I especially appreciated that the crab cakes were broiled, rather than fried. I have always felt that broiling is the way to go with crab cakes as to preserve the delicately sweet flavor of crab meat. In this case, the typical squeeze of fresh lemon is switched out for beurre blanc—an emulsified butter, laced with white wine and lemon. This dish was an absolute banger.
However, if seafood isn’t your thing, Russillo still has you covered. I dove into a classic stuffed artichoke—reminiscent of dinners with my Grandfather. Each leaf is layered with herbed breadcrumbs and cheese. I sat there, peeling off each leaf and dipping it in the pool of tomato braising liquid at the base of the dish. It’s downright addicting.
Speaking of addicting, filet mignon meatballs, anyone? That’s right, tender meatballs come out steaming, sauced in layers of savory flavor with Russillo’s signature sherry cream sauce—studded with slices of shiitake mushroom. The dish is earthy, filled with umami and, best of all, a much-needed break from your traditional meatball in red sauce. Sure, it’s classic for a reason, but why not try something new every now and then? You just might find your next favorite thing.
The only thing I like better than sharing a variety of apps with my friends is, well, pasta. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I eat, sleep and breathe pasta. And for Russillo, it seems they feel the same way I do.
Fresh ribbons of pappardelle come bathed in a rosy vodka sauce—with a punch of heat from marinated Calabrian chili. On top of the nest of pasta? None other than a fresh ball of burrata, just waiting to be broken up and mixed into the dish. Ribbons of cheese stretch throughout the pasta like telephone wires. Again, Russillo takes familiarity and turns it up a notch. Or several. Move aside tired penne vodka, Russillo has something fresh to take your place.
The star was their signature “Scaffetuni Enzo.” Large rings of pasta are tossed with a layered sausage bolognese. The ragu is made in the traditional sense, albeit swapping the beef, pork and veal out for freshly ground sausage. It is a complex dish, with plenty of interesting flavors like toasted fennel seeds and garlic coming out to play. A handful of spinach is wilted down into the sauce along with the pasta, adding a necessary punch of green and freshness to an otherwise rich dish. This is comfort food. As I sat there sopping up the sauce with pieces of bread, I couldn’t help but feel like a kid, standing on my tippy toes and sneaking tastes from the pot on Sundays. It’s one of those dishes that reminds me why I love food in the first place. That dose of nostalgia is always welcome at any table of mine.
Past pasta, Russillo has plenty of entrees to match the energy. Golden-brown local scallops come perfectly seared and basted in butter. A velvety and rich tomato risotto comes alongside them. Scallops are so hit or miss to me, but these, thankfully, did anything but miss. The scallop’s meat was sweet and tender, with an added nuttiness from the slightly browned butter they are finished in. This flavor profile was the perfect match for a bright risotto, each granule of rice with its own identity and perfectly coated in starchy sauce. It’s impressive and further proof that my initial thoughts of Russillo as “just a pizzeria” could not have been further from the truth.
For my final savory bites, I was sent a filet mignon dish that was not quite like any filet I’ve ever had. Rather than a thicker steak, the meat was cut into slices—otherwise known as scallopini. The thin beef slices were seared in a hot pan and finished with a deeply rich, brown sauce made from sherry and shitake mushroom. To accompany the warming main was a mountain of vibrant and garlic-laced broccoli rabe. Bitter and aromatic, there’s a reason why broccoli rabe, if you ask me, is the king of the green vegetables. Combined with the beef, it was a match made in heaven. A match that I found it hard to take my fork away from.
As I always do, I saved room for dessert. Just one this time. I went with a classic—the timeless tiramisu. The lady fingers were properly soaked in espresso and layered in a fresh mascarpone-based cream, finished off with the signature dusting of cocoa powder. It was something familiar for me and that’s why it was so good. Even after a meal of proper and tasteful innovation, it’s still nice to default black to a classic sweet. The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” perfectly describes how I see tiramisu. Russillo, again, hit the nail on the head.
In a state filled with pizzerias and red sauce joints, it’s always nice to see a spot that can do it all. Whether you need a pizza, chicken parm or something a little different like cherry pepper-laced calamari and sherry-sauced meatballs, Russillo in West Caldwell, NJ has you covered. The Bloomfield Ave staple is the perfect mix of familiar and experimental. Most importantly, no matter what you choose, you’re guaranteed something delicious.
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.