When a new restaurant takes over the space vacated by an establishment with a less than stellar reputation, I’m always a little wary that the bad karma might carry forward. But I am happy to report that Cielo has escaped this fate. Billing itself as a “restaurant with an active bar,” Chef/owner Anthony Pucciarello describes his new venture as “elegant, but affordable.” And in a world of over-priced, mediocre competitors that dot the north Jersey landscape, this should be a welcome venue.
Chef Anthony, well known in the area for many years, is a graduate of the CIA and the FDU School of Hotel/Restaurant Management.
Dining there recently, I was impressed with the wait staff’s attention to details, but also their relaxed approach and humor. They walked that fine line of familiarity very well. Our waiter answered all of our questions with ease and patience, and knew just when to check on our progress.
Diners are offered a delicious complementary Italian specialty with the bread service. And then the hard decision making process begins. Besides the robust regular menu, the Chef offers 20-25 specials on the weekends. We began with a light and flavorful arugula salad highlighted with apples, candied walnuts, and gorgonzola. Moving on to the entrees, while intrigued with the meat and fish choices, once I see house made pasta on a menu, I’m done. Any restaurant that wants to be thought of in serious terms needs to make its own pasta. It’s too simple not to. And good chefs and restaurateurs know that. My choice was the orecchiette with caramelized cauliflower, sweet sausage, white northern beans, garlic, and olive oil, topped with toasted breadcrumbs. The melding of the tender cauliflower with the velvety beans and crumbled sausage was perfect. And, as is the way with most pasta dishes, it was even better the next day! My friend chose a special that evening of large rigatoni brimming with crumbled hot sausage, white beans and Brussels sprouts in garlic and oil – pure delight!
The plates at Cielo are generous – so much so that I could not even glance at the dessert menu, which is totally out of the norm for me! However, I will plan better next time so I can take advantage of their pastry chef’s specialties.
Chef Anthony has lots in store for his baby. Besides offering live music on Friday and Saturday evenings, they are planning a “create your own antipasto” offering to be paired with appropriate wines in the coming months. There is an outdoor patio for the warm weather with seating for up to 84 people, and a tavern menu that can be ordered at the bar anytime. This includes wood-fired oven pizzas, Angus burgers, and small plates.
I inquired about the Chef’s favorite foods and without a moment’s hesitation he answered, peasant food; he considers seafood his specialty. When asked about his vision for the restaurant, he said he wants to create a comfortable spot where people can come for affordable Italian in the dining room, or stop by for a drink and a light dish at the bar. He has made an effort to offer a wine list with no bottles costing more than $35 and all drinks $10 or less. To round out the wine list, I would encourage him to incorporate more well-regarded vintners in the line-up, while keeping the value-based wines. Well educated diners (and wine lovers) will appreciate that.
You may be wondering, as I was, the meaning behind the restaurant name. Chef Anthony relayed a touching story. His father passed away two years ago. As the August 31st closing date for the restaurant approached, his lawyer notified him the day before that there were still many outstanding issues from the previous owner. “The skies would have to open up for this closing to go through tomorrow,” his lawyer counseled. Anthony looked to the skies and said “well, Dad, at least we made it this far.” They went to the closing as scheduled the next day, not expecting it to go through. However, when they arrived, they were told that all of the problems had miraculously been resolved! Anthony immediately knew the name of the restaurant had to be “Cielo,” which means sky or heaven in Italian. Good karma, indeed.
168 Passaic Avenue
Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch
Dinner served Tuesday-Sunday
Food served at the bar until 1am
Terry Krongold is a life-long passionate baker. In addition to a full-time job in the pharmaceutical industry, Terry has been involved with food for many years, including co-ownership of a dessert catering company in the late eighties called I Love Cheesecake, specializing in fine cheesecake and unique desserts. Terry is the author of The Cook’s Tour, a blog focused on food, baking, and travel. When not working, writing, or baking, she spends time planning vacations around restaurants to visit. She can be reached at email@example.com.