Few things are as certain as this: Viaggio, the critically acclaimed Wayne restaurant by Chef Robbie Felice, is certainly always going to hit it out of the park when it comes to pasta, but their strengths go well beyond just that. Viaggio is one of the most complete restaurants in New Jersey and as we weave in and out of the seasons, so does the menu—proving that no matter the ingredients, or the time of the year, Viaggio is going to please. This continued excellence landed them a spot on our top restaurants list last year.
Years since my first meal at the cozy, strip mall restaurant and it still feels like my first time there each and every visit. The newly added fall menu, pieced together at the hands of Chef de Cuisine Felix Gonzalez, is certainly no exception. From the staple calamari and gem lettuce salad to the mind-bending pastas and meat entrees, ending with the impeccably constructed desserts—Viaggio in Wayne, NJ should be at the top of your list this fall.
Viaggio has always done beets well. Along with the signature Calamari, the two appetizers have been somewhat of a “Robbie Felice: Greatest Hits” in my eyes. The beet insalata on display this fall is certainly no exception. Gonzalez shingles roasted red and yellow beets in a circle, adorning each slice with a supreme of winter citrus (think blood orange, cara cara orange, etc.). Pistachio makes its presence known in two distinct forms: Dollops of pistachio crema and crushed, roasted pistachios showered over the dish’s entirety. A bundle of frisée salad with mint and ricotta salata crumbles finishes off the plate.
First off, let me just say this: Ricotta salata and beets are the combination that goat cheese and beets wish it could be. The salty sheep’s milk cheese is sharp enough to stand up to the earthy beet without overpowering it. The citrus, providing a necessary punch, is thoughtfully executed—its textured flesh challenging the tender beet, while the juice dresses the dish as a whole. The bitter lettuce offers a fresh crunch, while mint and pistachio meld everything together. A star appetizer.
Even with the best ingredients, I find that too many restaurants approach salad incorrectly, or maybe they just play it safe. In any event, I’m over it. The charred gem lettuce salad is a refreshing change of course with its sweet hazelnut crumble, smoky lettuce and crisp apples. Gonzalez chars quartered little gem lettuce directly on a French top—caramelizing and almost burning the outside, while retaining a crisp and structured interior. I love lettuces done this way—it offers a different approach to the usually boring base that comes with most salads.
Now with some color, the lettuce, along with shaved apples and fennel, is dressed in a tangy apple vinaigrette. The salad is laid from 12 to 6 on the plate, showered with Pecorino and a mahogany-hued hazelnut crumble. Now, that’s a salad worth eating.
Like most visits to Viaggio, the pasta was an obvious highlight. Gonzalez’ fall pasta offerings might just be one of my favorite Viaggio pasta spreads yet. Take the barchette with butternut squash, for example. Translating to little boat in Italian, barchette starts with a square piece of pasta dough—two corners are pinched together and then sinched upward, forming what looks like, well, a boat. Gonzalez cooks two dozen or so of the little boats in boiling water before saucing them in brown butter with cubes of cooked squash. Meanwhile, a sea of fall-spiced squash purée is spread across the plate for each boat to sail on. As he plates, the nutty brown butter pools in each morsel of pasta. The dish is finished with fried sage and a drizzle of spiced agrodolce, bringing the acidity that the dish is begging for. Squash pasta in the fall is nothing new, still, Viaggio seems to somehow reinvent even the most obvious of dishes.
Viaggio is featuring a noteworthy spaghetti carbonara on their menu this fall. Housemade pancetta is rendered out with black pepper before being emulsified with spaghetti, pasta water, egg yolk and cheese. A touch of cinnamon in the pancetta cure adds a twinge of the season to a dish that already makes sense for this time of the year. Viaggio’s carbonara takes slight liberties when compared to a classic Roman carbonara, but I welcome it with open arms. Carbonara fans will not be disappointed.
A mesmerizing stuffed pasta is always a certainty at Viaggio and the busta di funghi is certainly no different. The half-fold ravioli is filled with a smooth purée of porcini mushroom, stracchino cheese, parmigiano and ricotta. The ravioli is sauced in a beurre fondue of mushroom stock and butter. Gonzalez lays the bundles of pasta around the plate in a circle, anointing each one with a smoked parmigiano espuma. The smoky cheese and the deeply flavored mushroom marry in an inexplicable way—challenging your tastebuds to decipher the complexities of the dish. But, there are no secrets here. The sophistication lies in the mushroom stock, which is a labyrinth of savory flavor—a defining reason why this is one of the better mushroom pastas I have enjoyed in quite some time.
I beg you, do not overlook the ragu bianca, which comes with spinach fettuccine, a white veal ragu and Parmigiano cheese. It is a simple dish—only three parts—but each component is virtually perfect. Ground veal is rendered out and the fat is used to cook down a white sofrito. The veal is reintroduced and the entire mix is simmered into a velvety ragu. What I love about this ragu so much is how small the granules of meat are. Rather than tough, clumps of ground meat, the sauce is broken down into a finer build, allowing it to sauce the flat, green ribbons of pasta more evenly. Beyond the saucing capabilities, ragu that is broken down into this texture has a far better mouth feel than most other offerings. Savory and comforting, the tomato-less ragu might seem like the most boring pasta of the bunch, but you’d be a fool to think that. For me, it is the ragu in which all ragus will be compared to for the foreseeable future.
If there is one thing to know when heading to Viaggio, it’s that the chicken should always be a part of your meal. Throw away everything you thought you knew about chicken—the misconception that it is boring, or not as good as other meats. Chicken, when done correctly, is my favorite meat to eat; and Viaggio never misses.
There is always a chicken dish on the menu and it usually centers around a method of cookery that Viaggio has become somewhat known for. Chicken breast is brined, air-dried, stuffed just underneath the skin and then roasted on the carcass and carved to order. The method usually remains the same, but the set changes seasonally. This current version might be my favorite that Viaggio has ever put out. “Chicken marsala,” Gonzalez told me, before placing down a plate that looked nothing like any chicken marsala I had ever seen. Sliced chicken, with its golden-brown and crispy skin, is shingled on the plate, accompanied by a mix of mushrooms cooked down with stock and marsala wine. That’s all the dish needed to instantly become one of my favorite bites this year. The crispy skin, which is attached to a savory breadcrumb stuffing, encases flavorful and moist breast meat. Gonzalez makes a bold move, pairing the delicate chicken with meaty, umami-laced mushrooms and my God does it work. Please, I’m getting tired of telling people: Order the fucking chicken.
Of course, any fall menu is incomplete without proper desserts to top it off. In many ways, dessert is the most important course because it is your final impression before leaving. The last dance. Pastry Chef Meichan Saechao understands this wholeheartedly.
She immediately impressed me by handing me a poached pear that I didn’t hate. Seriously, the outdated dessert is typically one of my least favorite ways to finish a meal, but Saechao’s version proved to be the exception. A pear is poached in a fall-spiced liquid before being cooled and wrapped in puff pastry. The entire thing is baked to a crisp and paired with punchy cranberries, vanilla gelato and hazelnut crunch. The pear was soft and just warm through, a perfect centerpiece to the harmonies of the buttery pastry. It was a refreshing take on a classic and one that I would go out of my way to order again.
The coffee panna cotta is on the opposite end of the dessert spectrum. The custard is infused with a roasted coffee flavor and nutty aroma, complemented perfectly by the dark chocolate crumble that decorates it. Cubes of coffee jello dance around the plate along with chunks of fluffy angel food cake. Think tiramisu meets panna cotta. This was a fun display, offering a look at Saechao’s obviously playful and creative approach to desserts. If you ask me, that’s the only way to do it.
Robbie Felice’s Viaggio in Wayne, NJ never misses. The restaurant is consistently among the best meals that one can find in Jersey and they do it all out of a strip mall, without a liquor license. Chef de Cuisine Felix Gonzalez has proven that he can put out the quality that diners expect to see out of the top restaurant and this recent menu solidifies it. Don’t just take my word for it, though, head to Viaggio and see for yourself why it is always talked about amongst the best. The electric starters, the stunning pasta that seems to always improve, the hand-cut steaks and delicately steamed fish and finally, the playfully tasty desserts—run, don’t walk to Viaggio this fall.
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.