AT THIS HAWTHORNE RESTAURANT, A PAIR OF CHEFS JOIN FORCES TO CREATE CHEMISTRY, AND AN INNOVATIVE MENU
BY JESSICA JONES-GORMAN PHOTOS BY AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
The old saying about too many cooks in the kitchen is usually spot on, and more often than not, an abundance of managers in any setting does indeed spoil the broth. But at Bottagra Restaurant in Hawthorne, a hip Italian eatery set in a historic Revolutionary War era house on Wagaraw Road, having multiple cooks has resulted in an impressive brand of chemistry and some great dishes.
“I met Carlo when I was running a gourmet Italian deli in Elmwood Park,” noted one of those cooks, Robert Vicari, speaking about Vicari’s Market Gourmet, the upscale salumeria he owned and operated for five years, and his current partnership with Chef Carlo Carbonaro. “He owned Café Arugula in South Orange at the time, and we just started talking about how great it would be to open a high end Italian restaurant in this part of the state.”
Vicari, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1999, already had an impressive resume behind him. He had interned at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and then worked at a string of posh eateries in Manhattan and New Jersey before opening his gourmet market at the age of 25. Carbonaro, who was basically raised in his father’s pizzeria, opened his own restaurant when he was just 21. “We wanted to bring a level of quality and service to this area, and basically bring a New York style restaurant to New Jersey,” Vicari said.
So in 2008, after a location that Carbonaro had long had his eye on went up for sale, the two chefs made their move. The site, former home of Scordato’s Restaurant and then Alexus Steakhouse, was completely revamped during an eight month remodeling project.
“We added a bar and more dining space and divided it into three private rooms with fireplaces and a small dance floor for banquets,” Vicari said.
The chefs came up with an uncomplicated modern Italian menu that was noticeably different than the dozens of other Italian options in the area.
“Our families are both from Sicily, so the menu is predominantly Southern Italian,” Vicari explained, detailing dishes like Spaghetti Bottagra, which is made with sun dried tomatoes, sliced garlic, shaves of tuna bottagra, and toasted breadcrumbs. “We do serve traditional dishes like Chicken Parmesan, because there is always a demand for those, but the majority of our food has a modern twist.”
Take, for example, the Sicilian Rib Eye, served with broccoli rabe, garlic, sun dried tomatoes, capers, rosemary, and four cheese macaroni, or the Strozzapreti, which is Sicilian eggplant made with Gulf shrimp and a pesto vodka sauce.
“Our grilled octopus is very popular as well,” Vicari said, describing a dish served with arugula, cherry tomatoes, crisp garlic, and lemon “And the Spinach Malfatti house made ricotta dumplings in a tomato vodka sauce is always a favorite as well.”
There’s Pignoli Crusted Salmon, too, served with wild mushroom polenta and sauteed spinach in a truffle emulsion, and traditional Sicilian Arancini and Spiedini Alla Romana (spiedini is a meat dish, in which beef is rolled around a filling or minced and formed into balls). For dessert, zeppoles are served warm in a paper bag.
“Our bar focuses on special, handcrafted cocktails,” added Vicari. “We make a lot of high end martinis and house made margaritas, and we have over 400 bottles on our wine list.”
A lounge is available for cocktail events and a Chef’s Table can accommodate dinner parties for up to sixteen. Once a month, the restaurant hosts a Sunday brunch, which has gained some renown on the New Jersey social scene.
“It’s a combination of a unique dining and a nightlife experience,” Vicari explained.
The monthly event is known for its champagne showers, glow sticks, and night clubish dress code. VIP reservations are required (they can be made on the restaurant’s website).But no matter what the event is quiet dinner or a lavish brunch Vicari says, the focus is always on the food.
“The concept of Bottagra has always been very simple: to serve delicious food that guests will want to return to week after week,” he concluded. “That has always been our main concern.”
80 Wagaraw Road, Hawthorne / 973.423.4433