New Jersey is no stranger to great Italian restaurants. My favorites have always been the small, cozy eateries that welcome guests as family to enjoy authentic food, crafted with passion. This vision frames Chef Salvatore Scarlata’s Vidalia Restaurant, a charming BYOB celebrating more than 10 years in Mercer County’s village of Lawrenceville. Visiting for dinner, Vidalia’s warm hospitality made me feel as if I had been dining there for years. It was my first visit, but will not be my last.
Scarlata’s pride in Vidalia and passion for the art of Italian cuisine are deeply rooted. He was born in Sicily and raised in Northern Italy, where his interest in cooking was ignited at a young age. In fact, Scarlata’s grandfather was a well-known plum tomato cultivator and his grandmother processed their crops for sun-dried tomatoes. Sourcing from distributors such as FarmArt Produce and Severino Pasta, Vidalia’s menu reflects an appreciation for the beauty of fresh, local ingredients. “As a small, local business myself, I want to support other businesses in the area and those who aim for exceptional quality as I do,” Scarlata explained. “We live in this town, our kids go to school here, and we’ve been a part of the community for ten years, so supporting local businesses makes sense for us. Plus, it ensures our customers receive only the best from doing so!”
Finding it impossible to choose between Vidalia’s “Primi” selections, my dinner guest and I decided to take Scarlata up on his offer to surprise us with appetizers. As something of an artichoke fiend, I secretly hoped that one of his choices would be the carciofi francese, and he did not disappoint. Enrobed in a lemon, white wine, and butter sauce that was just tart enough to awaken the dish without being too assertive, the lightly battered Roman artichoke hearts provided a bright start to the meal. We especially appreciated the textural balance of the asparagus, prosciutto, and mozzarella bundles that followed. Each bite of flaky puff pastry yielded a center of crisp-tender asparagus that contrasted the bed of sun-dried tomato sauce well.
Our Insalate course consisted of a beet salad (pictured at top) that was as interesting to the eyes as it was to the palate. With walnuts, figs, goat cheese, and honey-balsamic vinaigrette, the salad was earthy, sweet, and satisfying. Scarlata’s garnish of balsamic caviar from Modena intrigued us. The tiny pearls of balsamic vinegar popped on the tongue for a punctuation of flavor that rounded the dish.
I always ask for entrée recommendations when I visit a restaurant for the first time. When two of the staff remarked that we should not miss Scarlata’s red sauce, my guest ordered Vidalia’s namesake dish. The generous portion of fresh fettuccine tossed with plum tomato sauce, sautéed eggplant, fennel sausage, and Vidalia onions was fresh and comforting, without being heavy. A seafood lover, I opted for pan-seared scallops with black truffle oil-infused parmesan mushroom risotto. The Boston Day Boat scallops were meltingly tender, paired with a vermouth cream sauce for a luxurious finish.
I’m not sure how we managed to fit dessert but am glad we did! The torta di creme brûlée (creme brûlée pie) paired a thick graham cracker crust with velvety, classically-flavored filling. We both remarked between forkfuls on how much we enjoyed the filling’s light texture. A delightful twist on a dessert staple.
Vidalia is open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Friday, and dinner on the weekends. Since seating does fill up (the restaurant was full on the rainy weeknight I visited), dinner reservations are recommended. Guests may request al fresco dining on the patio, recently updated for year-round use. Vidalia’s amiable atmosphere and creative presentation of eclectic, Northern Italian inspired cuisine are as well-suited to dining with a group of friends as enjoying a romantic dinner for two. Buon appetito!
21 Phillips Avenue