For reasons that we are all well aware of, Chefs across the globe were forced to improvise during 2020. We saw everything from an increase in take-out volumes to entire dining spaces being reimagined. However, with anything, there are anomalies. Chef Robbie Felice, in a similar theme to his entire life, never stopped moving forward.
For a chef who runs two top-30 restaurants in New Jersey, has been nominated for James Beard Awards, and is highly touted within the food scene, Felice saw this as nothing more than another challenge to not just overcome, but to shatter.
Viaggio Marketplace came first. Felice transformed the dining room of his top-rated restaurant, Viaggio, in Wayne, New Jersey into a full-blown marketplace for consumers to shop at. “I wanted to give the customers that have supported us throughout the years an opportunity to buy many of the ingredients we use behind the scenes,” Felicetold me. So, whether it be cheese and produce that are hard to come by in grocery stores, or any of his handmade sauces, diners were given a new way to still enjoy a part of Viaggio, even if at home. It didn’t just stop at produce and sauce, though. “We do all of our dry aged meats in-house… I thought to myself, why not let someone purchase a beautifully dry aged steak to cook at home if they want to?” Felice said.
Just when Viaggio Marketplace began to gain traction, Felice moved onto the next idea: sandwiches. At a restaurant with a lauded house-cured salumi program, a sandwich shop almost seemed like a no brainer. Then, simultaneously, came the pizza menu at Felice’s other restaurant, Osteria Crescendo in Westwood, New Jersey. These might seem like ideas that are nothing to write home about, but for anyone who has eaten Felice’s food in the past, it is incredibly apparent how out-there these ideas were for someone of his caliber. Likewise, if you have eaten his food before, it comes as no surprise to find out just how great he can make something as seemingly simple as pizza or a sandwich.
As these ideas came and went, I myself began to wonder what Felice would stop at. That was until his most ambitious idea came to fruition. Underground Tasting Tuesdays were Felice’s take on a Speakeasy-style dining experience. Looking at Vaggio’s schedule, they were closed on Tuesdays, but Felice, like many other chefs, was not just kicking his feet back to rest on those days. Instead, he opened his dining room to guests looking for an intimate experience that peeled back the layers of a restaurant to reveal what was at its core: a culinary mastermind. Tasting Tuesday offered a high-end tasting menu experience with no middlemen in the way. It was just you, your peers, and Chef Robbie Felice for two hours of what can be described as purely ideal. The menu was ever-changing, and the vibe was both mellow and mysterious. “It sort of took off. I figured a few of my regulars would definitely buy tickets, but I never expected to be booking dinners months in advanced,” Felice told me. It even got to the point where dinners began to be booked on Mondays as well, because there just was not enough space or time to fit it in to only one day per week.
The fare at these dinners was nothing like anything Felicehas ever put on a table before. Sure, it included his house cured meats, his handmade pastas and the imported Italian cheese, but they were paired in ways that seemed absurd. Take the Miso Bolognese, for example. Felice’sclassic Ragu Bolognese was enriched with white miso paste, sesame, and seaweed before being tossed with fresh ramen noodles. Something for purists to scoff at, but something for the curious diner to wonder what exactly he’s up to. This theme continues throughout the meal, Japanese flavors are combined with Italian techniques to create something like you’ve never had before. It is a dining experience that cannot be replicated. When it ends, it leaves you lingering for more in a way that is almost indescribable. It’s enigmatic.
Within Viaggio, a restaurant I have eaten at many times, I felt as if I were somewhere I had never been before. Familiar Felice techniques were juxtaposed with completely unique takes on food, combining to create something that felt paradoxical. It was as if Robbie Feliceopened a third restaurant without actually doing it. Once again, Felice’s ability to innovate put me into disbelief.
Being nosy, I had to ask if this type of cooking was the precursor to a larger idea at work. “There is more to come, I can’t say what exactly, but you’ll find out eventually,” Felice said. With his constant drive forward, I don’t doubt what he told me even for a second– I couldn’t if I tried.
Written By Peter Candia