Chef Robbie Felice Is Nearing His Culinary Crescendo
If you had asked Robbie Felice 3 years ago, he’d tell you that by now, he’d be living under the California sunshine cooking on the line at one of LA’s hottest new restaurants. After a culinary rite of passage that took him from New York to Vegas, onto Colorado and through much of Europe, the West Coast life was calling his name. Just as he finished packing the last of his Cali-bound luggage, his father, Joe, gave him a call.
“Robbie, I just bought a restaurant in Wayne,” his father said to his stunned son. “We are opening a place.”
That spot, located in your run of the mill North Jersey strip mall, was the antithesis of Robbie’s California dreams.
“At first, I couldn’t believe it was in a strip mall,” Robbie recounts. His worry-free demeanor and humble confidence hid any skepticism he may have had. “Once the lease was signed it was time to go, and we were going to figure out.”
More than two years later, Viaggio has become a bright spot of New Jersey dining, receiving accolades such as “Best 30 Restaurants in NJ” by NJ Monthly and “NJ’s 10 Best Dishes of 2018” by The Record. Moreover, the man-bun brandishing Chef Robbie Felice has cemented his name amongst the rising stars of New Jersey’s culinary scene.
With the opening of Osteria Crescendo in Westwood, there seems to be no stopping this 28-year-old executive chef and his father from giving us a bright new perspective on Italian cooking.
A chef’s journey always makes for an interesting story, and Robbie’s is no different. While he likes to begin it with the day he was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America out of high school, Robbie was born into the restaurant world. His father, Joe, had different restaurants throughout Robbie’s life, where Robbie began as a dishwasher before holding just about every restaurant job you could think of. Meanwhile, watching his grandmothers cook gave Robbie the appreciation for fresh ingredients and a desire to learn to execute dishes on his own.
Before graduating the CIA in 2011, Robbie’s externship had him working under the likes of Chefs Mario Batali and Frank Langello at esteemed Babbo.
“Working in that restaurant, being challenged every single day, it was really what I was looking for,” Robbie recalls. “I gave serious thought about not returning to finish school and continuing to learn under Chef Langello.”
Upon graduating, Robbie and another CIA graduate, a close friend, were trying to figure out where their culinary training would take them. The first spot the pair landed was in Vail, Colo., at a spot called the Atwater on Gore Creek. There, Robbie fine tuned his culinary skills, but when the restaurant owners asked him to sign a year contract to stay despite Vail’s quiet summer season upcoming, the pair of friends knew it was time to move on.
“I had my eye set on Cali. I just knew I’d be in Cali eventually,” Robbie recalls. “I said to my friend, ‘Where should we go?’ His reply, ‘Where should all young 20-year-olds go? We’re going to Vegas.’
“I reached out to some of my contacts from the Batali-Bastianich group and I had a job waiting out there for me. I remember, I was to start in like two days and had to get from Colorado to Vegas. One problem: I only had my sport bike and an impending snowstorm was getting ready to lay about 10 inches of snow on the ski town. Sure enough, we got on our bikes and rode through the storm. We somehow made it out of there without dying,” Robbie laughs.
While traversing snow on a sport bike could arguably be the basis for a diagnosis of psychosis, for Robbie it’s a just a testament to the bold determination that has led him to owning two restaurants before age 30.
As Robbie settled into Vegas life, his attention to detail and ability to elevate flavors at B&B Ristorante landed him the role of sous chef while he simultaneously took Batali-Bastianich Hospitality Group’s Vegas salumi (Italian cured meats, including prosciutto, pancetta and capocollo) program under his wing. The fruits of that labor can now be seen throughout both of Robbie’s restaurants.
Of course, living in Vegas can take its toll.
“We were having a lot of fun and working hard, but I was ready for my next thing,” Robbie says. “I had no idea what I was going to do, but I had some money in the bank and the prospect of eating my way through Europe sounded pretty cool.”
In 2015, Robbie did just that. Staying with family in Holland, he began staging at Pure C, Chef Sergio Herman’s Michelin Star powerhouse. Chef Herman, who in 2014 shuttered his 3 Michelin Star restaurant only to move to an entirely new country and open Pure C, left a profound impact on Robbie. Robbie saw Chef Herman as a culinary rock star that did what he did because he loved it. It was never about the money or the accolades. It was all about the food. In Robbie’s eyes, Chef Herman was a “Food God.”
“When Chef Herman asked me to come out and start the Jane with him and Chef Nick Bril in Belgium, I had to go,” Robbie recalls. “It was a 19th Century chapel. We had an open kitchen where the alter used to be. It was so awesome and just so cool to be a part of it.”
The Jane, where food was religion and the Blessed Sacrament was far more delicious, made its mark on Robbie. He gained the invaluable experience of opening a restaurant and with it, an even greater appreciation for elevated sustenance.
After continuing his culinary tour through London, Spain, the Netherlands and eventually exploring Italian cities such as Modena and Bologna, where he honed in on the cooking styles noted in his two restaurants, Robbie was just about out of money. After moving home, he quickly got a gig at The Modern, the Museum of Modern Art’s flagship eatery.
“I was there for about 4 months, but it wasn’t a challenge,” Robbie says modestly. “I wanted 20 hour days, grueling moments on the line where there was intense pressure to be perfect. The Modern just didn’t do that for me.”
While Robbie contemplated his next move, with his eye still set on California, local Chef Ryan DePersio of Fascino in Montclair asked Robbie to watch over his finely tuned eatery while DePersio opened his newest place.
“Ryan has always been a mentor to me, and I wasn’t going to let him down,” Robbie says. “I knew it was a temporary gig but it was a good look at what it takes to run a restaurant in Jersey, which, of course, I had no interest in doing,” Robbie says with a laugh.
With California on his mind, Robbie got that call from his father, and everything changed.
While Robbie’s baby, Viaggio is now two years old and learning to walk on its own, Osteria Crescendo presents Robbie’s latest challenge.
“I used to think if you can open in New York City, you can open anywhere. Now, I realize if you can have a place in Bergen County, you can be anywhere,” Robbie says laughing. “We’re adjusting though. People here can be finicky and set in their ways. We want to give them what they want, but we also want to give them a food experience unlike any they’ve had before.”
While both Viaggio and Osteria Crescendo fall firmly under the Italian genre, the two concepts aren’t alike.
“Why would we do the same thing within driving distance to each other? We didn’t want our own restaurants competing with each other,” Robbie explains. However, much like Bastianich did with the likes of Babbo and Otto, Robbie has creatively diversified his portfolio.
Both restaurants adhere to Robbie’s cooking style utilizing locally sourced ingredients, but Osteria Crescendo took Viaggio’s simpler Italian fare and elevated it, utilizing a “for the table” concept meant to bring groups of diners together to experience food together. Take for instance the Whole Polpo Fritto: an entire octopus, lightly fried, served over a tomato eggplant puttanesca, and perfectly suited for a four top to share amongst themselves. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, the 30-day dry aged rib eye ought to do the trick.
Robbie’s days begin at 6 a.m., when he wakes up before heading to the gym. Then, the Sussex County native heads to Wayne to make sure Viaggio is running like the fine tuned machine Robbie passionately created. By 11 a.m., he’s at Osteria Crescendo until the last dish comes down the line.
Between those hours, Robbie is nonstop. His attention to detail and ability to mentor his staff, albeit while being their age or younger, is part of Robbie’s mystique. His cool demeanor differs greatly from that of some of his mentors, such as Chef Herman, who notoriously slings curses across his kitchen, but his passion burns just as hot.
While Robbie’s notoriety continues to grow, his ego never has. If you’re lucky enough to meet him, you’d think the Sussex County native was cut from California’s cloth. He remains relaxed in the face of intense heat – whether it is a scolding stove or the lofty expectations placed upon him. At the chef’s counter at Viaggio where you can see it firsthand, or the window into the kitchen at Osteria Crescendo, he and his staff operate with an elegant precision reminiscent of a finely tuned timepiece.
It’s safe to say that Robbie has no idea what his future holds. While he continues to grow his restaurants, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were a few TV appearances on his horizon. With his youthful exuberance comes his desire to continue pushing the boundaries on what it means to have Italian restaurants in North Jersey. While you might not find chicken cacciatore on the menu, his gnocchi is worthy of worship, transporting you to Modena with every beautifully ethereal bite.
For Robbie, food is everything. It has raised him, shaped him, educated him and sustained him in more ways than one. Night-after-night, he now imparts that love upon our plates. While Robbie might be the California kid who never made it there, his journey and the phone call from his father that brought him back home oozes of that divine intervention that placed Robbie exactly where he belongs. Fortunately for our palates, that’s in the kitchens of two incredible eateries in North Jersey.
By Brandon Goldstein