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103 Spring Valley Road
Park Ridge, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 391-2230

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Named after the legendary Hollywood heartthrob, Valentino's isn't about innovation... it's about tradition. The establishment's well-heeled habitués aren't in search of some mythical gastronomic Holy Grail; they know precisely what they want and where to find it. Chef Peter Santero's Italian cuisine may not dazzle, but it surely satisfies -- psychologically as well as physically. The classic offerings are lovingly prepared, served up in generous portions and, given the posh Bergen County surroundings, quite reasonably priced.

Set back serenely among the trees in a charming residential neighborhood, Valentino's pampers its patrons with valet parking and a decidedly romantic Old World ambiance. Dark wood paneling predominates, along with timbered ceilings, subdued lighting, and crisp white napery. Whether dining for business or pleasure, celebrating an intimate tête-à-tête or making merry with a group of friends, the cozy, comfortable atmosphere will put you at ease the moment you cross the threshold.

And the service is Old World as well. The tuxedoed waiters are completely professional yet not the least bit stuffy; indeed, they are not above engaging in a bit of conversational repartée with the clientele. But whether you are a restaurant regular or newcomer on the scene, you may rest assured that the welcome will be warm and your evening at table a most pleasant experience.

You begin with a fresh-from-the-oven loaf of crusty round bread and curls of butter. A very nice house salad -- mixed greens, slices of tomato & cucumber, and a generous sprinkling of feta cheese -- is also included with your meal. You may, however, wish to start things off with one of the other salad selections. The spinach salad ($6.95), sporting egg slices, crumbled bacon and bacon dressing, is quite excellent. And the Belgian endive ($7.95) adorned with green olives and bits of tomato finds its perfect counterpoint in a delightful light garlic dressing.

There are no big surprises among the appetizers. The shrimp cocktail ($14.95) is standard issue, as is the eggplant rollatini ($8.95). The mushrooms ripieni ($8.95), stuffed with crabmeat, are good but not exceptional. On the other hand, the mussels posillipo ($8.95) are absolutely first-rate. Marvelously plump and swimming in a rich tomato broth, these succulent bivalves are simply bursting with the sensuous, scintillating scent of the sea.

Pastas, which may be ordered as a main course or as an appetizer, are uniformly excellent. No limp linguine here, all are prepared al dente and are right up to the mark. Particularly recommended is the Pappardelle Filetto di Pomodoro ($14.95/$8.00), homemade wide noodles caressed by a fresh and intensely flavorful tomato sauce embellished with basil, garlic, virgin olive oil and prosciutto. You might also consider the Capelli D'Angelo Primavera ($13.95/$8.00), imported angel hair pasta dotted with fresh garden vegetables and finished with a light tomato cream sauce. The homemade gnocchi ($14.95/$8.00) are so ethereal they seem to dance upon the tongue. They may be ordered either Alfredo or bolognese... but I would urge you to go for the latter, as the meat sauce is wonderfully rich and creamy and the perfect gastronomic spark for these slightly bland homemade potato dumplings.

When it comes to entrées, you will discover all the usual suspects present and accounted for: chicken and veal Parmigiana ($16.95/$18.95), veal saltimbocca ($19.95), steak pizzaiola ($24.95), etc., etc. I do not mean to denigrate these particular possibilities, as the kitchen does a commendable job with the great majority of its presentations; I would simply suggest that I found several other items to be infinitely more interesting.

Seafood, for example, is always an outstanding option here. The filet of sole may be ordered marechiaro ($22.95), rolled and poached in a light tomato/clam sauce; alla francese ($20.95), sautéed in lemon, butter and white wine; or seasoned with breadcrumbs and either broiled or sautéed ($20.95). Whichever method of preparation may appeal, however, you will find the fish moist, flaky, and at the very peak of good health.

If shellfish are more to your liking, the shrimp fra diavolo ($24.95) generates just enough heat to stimulate the palate without causing irreparable damage. These lovely crustaceans are gently sautéed and then laid to rest on a pillow of linguine. The scallops ($21.95), whether simply broiled or sprinkled with seasoned breadcrumbs, are also a good bet.

Ordering calf's liver within restaurant precincts is somewhat akin to playing Russian roulette. In theory, its preparation is relatively simply. In actuality, if improperly executed, it is your worst gastronomic nightmare. And, although I am extremely fond of this particular delicacy, I commit only if I am reasonably certain that the kitchen is up to the challenge. Should you be of similar mind, rest assured that this is the place to assuage your desires. Sautéed to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, with nary an errant membrane in sight, Valentino's version is garnished with onions and crisp bacon and finished with just a touch of balsamic vinegar ($18.95). And, as an added bonus, it is accompanied by, bar none, the most incredibly decadent, homespun, soul-satisfying lumpy mashed potatoes that I have ever, ever ingested. If you are a mashed potato maniac, as I am, welcome to the Promised Land.

But back down to earth... Desserts, undoubtedly the restaurant's weakest link, are still quite recommendable. The Italian cheesecake ($4.95), which is made on the premises, would surely be my first choice. The fresh seasonal fruit (market price) is properly ripened and the perfect conclusion to an Italian repast. And, although it is made off campus, the chocolate truffle cake is certain to cool the cravings of anyone with an incurably sweet tooth.

The compact wine list -- featuring such contenders as Travaglini Gattinara ($43.00), Antinori Chianti Classico "Peppoli" ($36.00), and Pio Cesare Cortese Di Gavi ($31.00) -- is a most hospitable match for the solid and satisfying Italian cuisine. You will also find several excellent wines by the glass, as well as a fine selection of fortified coffees, cordials, and liqueurs.

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:45 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 1:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V, DC
Attire: Jackets suggested
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Five steps at entrance; restrooms accessible
Website: www.valentinosrestaurantparkridge.com

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