How this Englewood Cliffs gem has kept its Italian flair for 25 years

by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos BY Amessé Photography

Before Tony DelGatto was a locally famous restaurateur with a couple of catering halls and one of New Jersey’s most legendary Italian eateries to his credit, he worked as a sheet metal mechanic.

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“In another life I worked in construction,” DelGatto laughed during an interview at Grissini, his fine dining outpost currently celebrating its 25th year. “I was a mechanical contractor with three companies, but when the New York City construction industry went broke in the late ’70s and early ’80s, all those jobs shut down and I had to find some other type of work.”

He learned from a friend that the Cameo (now the Venetian), a catering and special events facility in Garfield, was for sale. And even though he had no prior experience in the food industry—only a discerning taste for quality—he pooled his money with that of five other partners to buy it.

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“I didn’t have much, so I really had nothing to lose,” DelGatto said.

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A year later, when the 33-acre Westmount Country Club in Woodland Park landed on the market for a little more than $3 million, DelGatto borrowed 90 percent of the money and purchased it with his brother Tom.

“A lot of people told me it was a mistake,” DelGatto said. “But I think it worked out pretty well.”

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The brothers grew up poor in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement, the sons of two hardworking Italian immigrants who placed emphasis on food and its power to bring the whole family together. Together, they made the Westmount a success, and built a reputation for quality in the catering sector, with strict attention to detail and an abundance of all the “right foods.”

In 1992, when a Chinese restaurant in Englewood Cliffs called Hing’s China Inn shuttered, DelGatto decided to take another chance.

“A friend of mine told me I should go check out the location,” he said. “Hing’s was closing and he said the area could use a great Italian restaurant. As soon as I looked at the property, I knew I was going to take it.” He hired legendary designer Tony Chi to design the restaurant, pouring $1 million into the expansion.

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“We imported all kinds of wood from Italy…hand-picked all of this marble and fancy trim,” DelGatto said. “It was pricey at the time, but we didn’t want to just open some standard restaurant. We wanted the food, the atmosphere and the vibe—everything to be perfect.”

He also hired a chef direct from Italy to head the kitchen, and dined in some of New York City’s best restaurants to study the components of exemplary food and service. He named the restaurant Grissini (Italian for “breadsticks”) because a focus of the menu was freshly-baked bread, made in house.

“Our goal was to bring a truly fine-dining Italian establishment to New Jersey,” DelGatto said. “At the time, there were only a few of those types of restaurants in the state, and we went to extremes…traveling to Italy, finding a visionary chef, and creating the right ambiance.”

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Grissini’s menu covers all regions of Italy, and is renowned for wide-ranging specials, often 20 to 30 dishes per night.

“We feature, for example, Dungeness Crab in a Cognac Sauce, and can’t keep enough of it in house,” DelGatto said with a grin. “We also offer winter white truffles and black truffles—more than any other restaurant in the state. Whatever is in season—if we know our customers will enjoy it, we create a dish.”

A few years ago, the strictly Italian kitchen started offering prime aged center cut of steak, and “sells quite a few steaks for an Italian restaurant,” DelGatto said with discernible pride.

Pasta and desserts are homemade, and, as the kitchen is open-concept, diners can request any dish to be made tableside. On Saturdays, DelGatto can be found in the kitchen preparing meatballs, stuffed artichokes, and lasagna, based on his mother’s recipes.

The pasta and desserts are homemade, and, as the kitchen is open-concept, diners can request any dish to be made tableside. A wood burning stove pumps out fresh pizza, chops, and seared steaks. On Saturdays, DelGatto himself can be found in the kitchen preparing meatballs, stuffed artichokes, and lasagna based on his mother’s recipes.

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“Growing up, my mother cooked three meals a day, every day,” the owner said. “As a kid, I used to help her make the homemade pastas and cakes and I still do it here in memory of her.” (The DelGatto Traditional Homemade Meatballs and Pasta Dinner is available every Sunday.)

“Sometimes I look back and think about what I’ve accomplished,” he concluded. “All those years ago, I had no choice but to leave the construction business, but I never dreamed I would own two catering halls and a high-end restaurant. I love this business and have enjoyed every minute of this career. We’ve cooked delicious food for 25 years and have served as a special gathering place for so many families. That truly makes me happy.”

Grissini Restaurant
484 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs
201.568.3535 / grissinirestaurant.com