Toscania Trattoria transcends niche

jose-velez-toscania.JPGCelebrity Chef Jose Velez shows off the new enlarged dining room and some signature dishes at his new restaurant Toscania Trattoria in Little Falls with his sous chef David Romero.

Toscania Trattoria in Little Falls serves all the Italian classics, from calamari to bacala to figs, from carbonara to gnocchi to risotto, from saltimbocca to osso bucco.

Okay, so the calamari has a ginger glaze and mussels pernod also grace the menu (in fact, they’re one of the most popular choices). But Toscania Trattoria so embraces the North Jersey Italian restaurant concept that it could serve as a movie set of a humble yet aspiring mom-and-pop restaurant from a certain era in Jersey’s culinary history — what with its beautifully authentic pressed tin ceilings, its white tablecloths, its sturdy wooden chairs and just enough of the requisite artificial ivy trailing along its walls to amuse without being kitschy. And Sinatra, of course, on the sound system.

Chef José Velez, who has cooked for Presidents Bush and Clinton and appeared as a guest on the Food Network’s “Big Daddy’s House,” does an excellent job with classic Italian food. Why Italian? He gets asked that a lot. The simple answer is that he loves Italian food; his mother loved it and cooked a lot of it. But his specials list reflects Spanish and French influences. So the initial allure might be a familiar menu, but then you’re surprised by, say, paella or pig’s trotters.

Velez will likely greet you at the door, in his crisp chef whites, to graciously attend to your seating arrangements and pour your wine (Toscania Trattoria is a BYO). His restaurant, not quite two years old, quickly made the buzz list, which is no small thing when your concept hardly sets you apart from thousands of other restaurants in the state.

Maybe it has something to do with the slightly tart creaminess of the burrata ($10.95), a gently assertive cheese that accompanies slices of prosciutto that also gently assert their distinctiveness. Another nice appetizer is the esotica salad ($9.95), a light beginning with avocado, hearts of palm and oranges.

Spaghetti carbonara ($14.95) trends more classic than Americanized, which means it’s more about egg and cheese and less about cream, although this version was nonetheless quite buttery. Still, what’s not to love?

Veal saltimbocca ($19.95) almost seemed like a floral arrangement on a plate, a swirl of meat and vegetables offset smartly by a lineup of artichoke slices. This could easily be a state dinner staple — very good food without being fussy or pretentious, allowing you to eat well but also conduct the necessary business of the day.

A deeply scored snapper filet ($25.95) offers visual drama; it was lightly sweet and well accompanied by a classic beurre blanc. (Velez is quite serious about his fish and shops for them personally.)

We were well advised on the lofty, creamy citrus confection that is the limoncello cake ($6.50) and were quite pleased with the tiramisu ($6.50).

Like many chefs in this particular restaurant niche, Velez offers a dizzying number of choices, plus extensive daily specials. Unlike so many of his counterparts, he manages to execute with drama and grace. It’s no surprise this small space is often quite crowded, but a July expansion will double the capacity and allow Velez space for private parties.

Plus, he’ll have a chef’s table, should you want front-row access to a celebrity chef.

Toscania Trattoria

75 Main St., Little Falls; (973) 256-2984’

Hours: Lunch is noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. Dinner is 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sundays. BYO


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