Jason forgot to take the chicken breast out of the freezer on Monday night to cook yesterday’s dinner. So we were forced to go out. Womp womp…
I wanted to do something a little different, so we opted for Villa Paradiso. This place is very interesting. A co-worker of mine had recommended it to me a while ago, and Jason and I actually did go for dinner a few months ago. We were blown away by the food and service, and just a little perplexed by the decor. For some reason, after completely loving the food, it took us this long to get back there for a second try and a full review.
As I mentioned, the decor and feel of this place is kind of weird when you walk in: First of all it’s a stand alone building, but inside of a pretty big shopping plaza, so that’s weird – it feels very New Jersey to me. But second of all, we decided it must have been a diner before, and during the transition to Italian restaurant they could only afford to make small changes. So the weird metal walls and bar/counter area still exists, and instead of displaying cookies and muffins, as I’m sure it once did, that counter now displays live lobsters and a meat carving station. The decor is gaudy, over the top Italian – the way an Italian woman’s “sitting room” looked, that no one was ever actually allowed to sit in: there are fabric chair covers, rose petals, and marble spewed everywhere.
After the first meal I ate at Villa Paradiso, I started not to notice all of that weird stuff, though. And after the second meal that Jason and I had last night, I don’t care at all. The food here is so authentic, and done with so much love that there’s really no way a chair cover could take away from it. Last night, we were greeted and waited on by Chef Salvatore Lima himself; you may remember him from the Chopped episode titled “Big fish, Small basket.” He may not have won that competition, but he has definitely won Jason and me over.
Upon sitting down we were brought a small glass of champagne – a really nice touch, in my opinion… I will never be upset by champagne. And then he brought out this little plate of heaven (pictured below). The rice balls were my favorite kind: the ones with meat and peas and cheese inside – so amazing. And then those little triangles may not look too exciting, but they are actually delicious little fried cheesy bites.
Next, Chef Sal brought out a special little amuse bouche for us to taste: swordfish and zucchini carpaccio. Jason described it as, “fishy, lemony, olive oily perfection.” So full of that lemon and fish flavor but somehow not too fishy. Between the rice balls and this little snack, we had already fallen fully in love with Villa Paradiso without even having to order anything. To drink, Jason and I both did dirty gin martinis which were presented in the shaker and poured at our table. And we were delighted to find there was still enough in the shaker to almost completely refill our glasses. The chef had offered us a freshly made sangria, which part of me wonders about… next time.
Of course, we weren’t stopping there. We had gotten this dish last time, and needed it again: the baby octopus. Jason and I have never, ever seen baby octopus done this way with their heads still on. Chef Sal described how back in Italy his mother used to cut each head open just a tiny bit and stuff it with breadcrumbs. His own version is to put the octopus in a delicious puntanesca sauce. Yup, that’s the super olivey flavored marinara – save your bread for dipping, or rather shoveling, your leftover sauce into your face. Chef Sal explained how he likes to bring “city” dining to Staten Island so that we don’t have to travel, and I think he is definitely on to something with that. It’s not often I can find brand new dishes and ideas on this little island. But between Enoteca Maria, Alor Cafe, and now Villa Paradiso, we have a fair enough variety I think.
After our delightful octopus dish, we moved on to our real test: Caesar salad. I felt comfortable and confident enough that I could ask Chef Sal to throw some extra anchovies on top, and he was so excited to explain to us that he actually gets top of the line anchovies imported from Italy (thank God that I asked), so we were pretty excited. He split the portion for us table side, and we dove in. The salad was great. The dressing, a little lighter (more oily and less creamy) than a typical Caesar dressing, but we really liked that. The cheese was that really good (you know, the stinkier the cheese the better) Parmesan. The croutons were almost soft, not from being overdressed, but from being so buttery and fresh. And those anchovies – he wasn’t kidding. It was clear throughout each dish that they do not skimp or cut corners with regards to the quality of their ingredients.
Next, our entree: we watched as Chef Sal himself made his way over to the lobster tank and scooped out a huge live lobster. I know animal rights activists probably think I am a complete monster, so I’m sorry if I offend you. Usually lobster tanks gross me out: in most places they are cram packed with lobsters and filled with cloudy mucky water… you and I both know what that muck is and, I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to see my fish swimming in it ten minutes before I eat it. And I always wonder, “How long have those lobsters been in there?” But what I liked about Villa Paradiso’s tank was not only how immaculate and clear the water was (they must really take care in maintaining it), but also how they had maybe only 4 or 5 lobsters in it. That, to me, means that they take a lot of care to track their inventory and how much they need, they do not waste, and they must rotate fresh lobsters on a very regular basis.
The special last time was a lobster ravioli with some shrimp and half a lobster on the side; it was exceptional. The special last night was a saffron gnocchi di mare, with muscles, calamari, and a half a lobster shelled on top (I didn’t have to do any work, at all!). We shared the dish, and Chef Sal brought it out split perfectly for us. If the lobster ravioli last time was exceptional, I don’t even know what to call this. Seriously brilliant. The gnocchi was a little heavy (the chewier, denser, potato variety) – but so well balanced with the lighter seafood and sauce. The saffron was unusual; I had never had it in anything other than Spanish paellas. And while its taste is really quite difficult to pinpoint, I feel like it somehow (maybe magically) elevated the flavor of the simple oil/butter sauce that Chef Sal concocted. Plus it gave the meal such a beautiful yellow coloring, and yellow is my favorite color. The lobster and other seafood was so undoubtedly fishy, but in a really awesome and fresh way – it was like we could taste the ocean in each bite. It felt like each piece of seafood was cooked for just long enough to be “done” and then instantly put on the plate to preserve as much of its flavor as possible. I know, a seafood gnocchi dish doesn’t sound so riveting; but it was. It felt like I was eating the best and most gourmet food of Italy, but in the comfort of my own home… if that makes any sense?
For dessert I did a port wine, and Jason did an espresso (both, of course, very yummy). And Chef Sal took the liberty of bringing out his own version of a fruit cocktail for dessert. It included kiwi, melon, and the very exciting cactus fruit from Italy (the prickly pears from a cactus plant, to be exact). I had never seen or heard of such a thing! I bit in, excited as I could possibly be, and was not disappointed. The fruit was almost like a watermelon, but with seeds that felt like pomegranate – so juicy and flavorful. I just can’t help but be as excited as a kid on Christmas when I have the chance to try something new, and it happened so many times over the course of this meal.
All in all, I believe that Chef Salvatore Lima has an undeniable and exquisite level of skill, not only with his craft of cooking, but also with the art of explaining and sharing. He sat closeby at the bar while we ate, excited to see and hear our reactions, because he was confident that they would be great (he was right). He shared stories of his past in cooking, encouraging us to find his friend’s restaurant in Little Italy (Peasant – you’re now officially on the to do list)! And he shared stories of his childhood and family in Italy, declaring his mother the best cook he’s ever met. The inspiration behind the dishes was palpable. He encouraged us to call him before we come, next time, and tell him what we’d like to eat, “You want a lamb’s head, I’ll make you lamb’s head. You want tripe, I’ll make you tripe,” – I can’t type it in the awesome Italian accent, but it sounded way cooler coming from him than how it reads. And on the way out, I was given a beautiful long stemmed rose to take home. So ok, the decor’s a little weird, but who the F cares? The food speaks for itself. Five stars for Villa Paradiso goes in the Baconboozer book.