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Bruschetta Ristorante
292 Passaic Avenue
Fairfield, Essex County, New Jersey
(973) 227-6164

By The Artful Diner
November 25, 2002

Bruschetta is an altogether elegant eatery. And chef/owner Michael Frodella's creative Italian cuisine is as sleek and alluring as the tasteful décor. Mr. Frodella, also the proprietor of Bacchus Chop House & Wine Bar just a few doors away, has fashioned a dining experience that is decidedly sophisticated yet that keeps its fiscal feet planted firmly on moderately-priced terra firma.

The top-notch wine list, which features excellent representatives from both Italy and California, also sports some very reasonable tariffs... So a preprandial sampling of libations in the cozy bar is very much in order. Choices by the glass include a very nice 2000 Hess Select Chardonnay ($6.50), 2000 Broglia Gavi di Gavi "La Meirana" ($7.00), and a particularly appealing 1998 "Mad Zin" Zinfandel from Kepton Clark ($7.50).

Bottle-wise, the 2001 Villa Rosa Gavi di Gavi ($20.00) is a steal, as is Antinori's Santa Christina ($19.00), a lovely blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot that goes for a scant $8.00 - $9.00 above retail. If you want to splurge just a bit, however, it's difficult to top Travaglini's 1997 Gattinara ($42.00). Lush and bursting with fruit, this stylish wine has all the flavorful characteristics of a fine Barolo at a fraction of the price.

Once settled in at table, you will find that the menu presents a plethora of interesting possibilities. As in many restaurants, however, selection is all-important. What you order will have a great bearing upon the overall pleasure of your evening's gastronomic experience. Fortunately, Bruschetta has an infinitely more impressive batting average than most establishments. For while there are one or two near misses, the overwhelming majority of the kitchen's offerings are palpable hits.

When it comes to preludes, seafood items are particularly noteworthy. The shrimp "Preparation of the Day" ($11.95), for example, always deserves serious consideration. Recently encountered were three perfectly grilled crustaceans set on an exquisitely thin mango carpaccio topped with a tangle of micro greens and finished with a tangy lime vinaigrette.

The Manila clams and Prince Edward Island mussels ($9.95) are also highly recommended. They are wonderfully plump and arrive swimming in a roasted garlic clam broth adorned with roasted shallots and red peppers. The broth itself is so heady and flavorful that members of our party found themselves dipping morsels of bread into the bowl long after the bivalves had vacated the premises, so as not to miss a single drop of the addictive elixir.

The ahi tuna carpaccio ($11.95) presented on a chilled transparent synthetic block is bold, beautiful, and outlandishly delicious. The thinly-pounded flesh is rich and meaty and crowned with a grilled wild mushroom salad and dabs of zesty basil-wasabi vinaigrette. The exquisite marriage of temperatures, tastes, and textures makes this eye-catching starter an absolute must on your dining agenda.

But should you suffer from cravings for calamari ($10.95), this is surely the place to fulfill your desires. The rings are gently sautéed in a delicate garlic lemon sauce, served on a colorful triangular plate, and topped with crispy leeks... And, unlike the rubber bands that are often served up in lesser establishments, the squid is properly chewy yet amazingly tender.

If you'd prefer not to go the seafood route, the mozzarella di bufala ($8.95) is a mouth-watering alternative. Thick slices of red and yellow beefsteak tomatoes (especially luscious when the Jerseys are in season) are interspersed with rich slices of imported buffalo mozzarella, sprinkled with grilled artichoke hearts, and surrounded by a thread of extra virgin olive oil and dots of aged balsamic vinegar.

Entrées also sound several interesting piscatorial notes. The special pan-seared sockeye salmon ($22.95), resplendent of both color and texture, is served on a bed of slightly chewy homemade fettuccine, garnished with baby heirloom tomatoes and rock shrimp, and set adrift in a savory sea of toasted garlic shrimp broth. With the exception of a smattering of woefully undercooked fava beans, this presentation is quite up to the mark.

Another daily special, the pan-seared rock bass ($23.95), is also right on the money. The fish is cooked through, precisely as it should be, yet remains incredibly moist of countenance. It is accompanied by a delightful "stromboli" (wrapped in pizza dough) of portobello mushroom, French beans, and artichoke hearts. The finishing touch is a delectable lobster infused nage.

The only true disappointment in several visits proved to be the pan-seared Florida pompano ($23.95). Herb-encrusted and set on a feathery pillow of mashed potatoes, the filet looked -- and tasted -- a bit fatigued.

The veal "Bruschetta" ($21.95), a house specialty, on the other hand, is of superlative quality. The tenderloin of veal is sliced in the kitchen and presented on a bed of potato "risotto," which is, in reality, a lusty ragout comprised of tender diced potatoes and sweet corn.

Like the veal, venison ($23.95) is another rustic alternative designed to woo the carnivorously inclined. At the chef's discretion, robust slices are presented bleeding on the waiter's socks (very rare) -- a bit too rare for my taste -- but still bursting with flavor and sporting just the proper hint of gaminess. The chestnut flan adds a nice touch, as does a savory pool of truffle-scented butternut squash coulis.

Orecchiette (handmade ear-shaped pasta) in the company of broccoli rabe, sweet sausage, and white beans ($16.95) has become something of a mundane menu staple in most Italian eateries. The version encountered at Bruschetta, however, is anything but ordinary. Oven-dried tomatoes bring an added dimension to the color scheme, the white wine garlic sauce is particularly ingratiating, and even the chunks of "sweet" sausage provide a pleasant "kick" to the palate.

Like all that has preceded, pastry chef Susan Chiusano's desserts are hearty of countenance yet exceptionally cultured. And the star of the show is undeniably the banana coconut cream pie ($6.95). But forget your preconceptions... The bottom of a delicately flaky phyllo basket is adorned with creamy custard; two halves of a vertically-sliced banana extend above the top of the basket like chocolate-dipped rabbit ears; and a sprinkling of coconut and artistic dabs of caramel and chocolate complete the sumptuous scenario.

The individual Key lime tart topped with a strawberry and rhubarb compote ($6.95) also makes an excellent denouement to your meal, as does the hedonistic Kahlúa risotto pudding topped with a sensuous vanilla sauce ($6.95). And for those who just want to savor a good cup of cappuccino ($3.75), an assortment of homemade cookies and biscotti ($3.95) makes a splendid accompaniment.

Service at Bruschetta has always been extraordinarily professional. On our most recent visit, however, it was especially attentive. My companions at table seemed to feel that someone may have caught sight of my surreptitious scribbling. In any event, whether chowing down for business or pleasure, rest assured that this handsome establishment will always provide a most pleasant and satisfying dining experience.

Cuisine: Creative Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 12:00 noon - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Fri, from 5:30 p.m.; Sat, from 5:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Smart Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted at the bar only.
Reservations: Suggested on weekdays; required for parties of three or more on Fri & Sat
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License and extensive wine list
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: bruschettarestaurantonline.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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