Formula for popularity: Lots of choices, and big portions at Rosario's.
Rosario Gancitano didn't set out to create one of Midland Park's most popular restaurants. "I tried to open a spacious pizzeria," he says. "I was hoping I would make enough business to support my family. I didn't think I could make a chicken parmigiana any better than anybody else."
But from the day he opened the doors of Rosario's Trattoria in 2007 he was busy, and has only gotten busier.
Now the 80 seats are so sought after on weekends that Gancitano had to stop taking reservations after 6 p.m. He says he turns down between 50 and 100 people each weekend because he can't easily accommodate large parties in only a single dining room.
And so now he's even scouting locations for a second Rosario's, one that will hopefully have a separate dining area for parties.
"I'm looking at places that are established, that are doing a third of my business. I don't get it," he says.
Rosario's voluminous menu is poised for broad appeal. Is there some combination of pasta, meat, seafood, fish and sauce that does not exist on it? And if so, do you really need to eat it? You can come here for a simple pasta or eat several courses.
The dining room is attached to a more casual pizza counter, where you can choose from rice balls or stuffed artichokes displayed in the front window. You can even order a pizza, although it's not on the eat-in menu (you can't order just a large pizza in the dining room on Friday and Saturday nights).
And so the restaurant doesn't really specialize in any one thing — most everything sells across the board (though some dishes, such as roasted salmon, sell particularly well). Its big attraction is choice.
"We do as many things well as we can," Gancitano says.
After a few meals, I found myself agreeing with Gancitano's assessment of his own restaurant. It was a perfectly pleasant place to spend an evening, and the service was quite cordial, though you should expect lags when the place is full. The huge menu provides an excellent option for big groups with varying tastes (and we saw many).
The food just wasn't anything that we'd go out of our way for. And the price tags are high in some cases, but entrées include salads, and most plates can easily be split among several people. So to get the best bang for your buck here, share. There are no splitting fees.
An example was the marechiara, the menu's most expensive item, which our waiter encouraged me to order after I asked about a seafood pasta. It was crammed with shrimp and scallops, mussels and (chewy, overcooked) clams, calamari and a big fillet of tilapia. The $30.95 price tag seemed obscene, but only as an entrée-for-one-with-a-huge-doggy-bag. Split between two people (or more), it would seem much more reasonable.
There are "small" and "large" appetizer portions; we stuck to the small and found them more than ample. Our "calamari Rosario" involved rings of calamari that were both crisp and tender. However, the big pile was sauced with dollops of a sharp, concentrated balsamic glaze that would have easily been improved if it were more evenly coated onto the rings or served on the side ($13.95 for a "small"). Eggplant rollatini was a little mushy, though it appeared to be covered with fresh mozzarella ($7.25 for a "small").
I was grateful for our waitress's ringing endorsement of the chicken Toscano. The three tender rolls of moist (and antibiotic-free) chicken wrapped with cheese and spinach in a thick vodka sauce were unabashed, unparalleled comfort food ($18.95).
We enjoyed decent versions of classics — baked manicotti ($14.95), veal Milanese over broccoli rabe ($22.95), though both could have been a little moister. Stuffed artichokes ($7.95) and small rice balls ($2.35 each), ordered by the piece from the counter, both suffered somewhat by being delivered lukewarm. A rather flat-tasting pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe also could have been served much hotter ($17.95).
Desserts are purchased from Nasto's in Newark. There's a towering, creamy square of tiramisù ($7.95) and a standard chocolate-chip cannoli ($5.95), but it was the chocolate lava cake that had us bowled over. Not with the flavor — it was actually quite bland. Or with the "lava" — it wasn't the slightest bit molten. But the price — $9.95 for a fairly modest portion? There are places where dessert is worth $10, but this isn't one of them.
Rosario's Tratoria **
29 Central Ave., Midland Park; 201-445-3335
Food: An exhaustive list of Italian and Italian-American dishes.
Ambience: Busy, popular neighborhood trattoria. Restaurant is connected to more casual takeout pizza counter.
Service: Friendly, though can be slow.
Value: Not cheap for the quality of the food, though portions are generous. Appetizers $7.25 to $13.95 (for the small portions, which two people could easily split), entrées $14.95 to $30.95.
Would be good for: Casual Italian dinner if you live in the area.
Less appropriate for: Destination dinner.
Recommended dishes: Chicken Toscano, tiramisù.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 12:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.
Liquor, wine: BYO.
Noise level: Quite loud with conversation when busy, which is often.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V.
Reservations: Recommended for parties of more than six. Not accepted for Friday and Saturday nights after 6 p.m.
Accommodations for children: Menu, highchairs.
Early-bird specials or deals: No.
Takeout: Yes, and delivery within a three-mile radius.
Parking: Lot, some meters in the park-and-ride behind the building.
Reviewed: March 9, 2012.
About the ratings
In determining ratings, each restaurant has been compared with others of the same type and level of ambition. Reviewers make at least two anonymous visits to a restaurant, and the newspaper always pays the tab.