Il Cinghiale Trattoria is Nicola Moncada's sequel.
For a decade, the native of Sicily ran Due Nicola in Little Falls, winning a stable of loyal regulars who enjoyed his constant presence in the dining room (he even personally took their orders) and his traditional Italian dishes.
But last year, faced with pressing family issues, Moncada sold the restaurant (it's now called Toscania Trattoria) and went back to Italy for several months. Upon coming back, he heard about an available restaurant spot in Little Ferry that had housed Puglia (and before that, Fat Kat) and jumped on it, opening a simply decorated, 50-seat BYO in February.
Why did he name it Il Cinghiale, Italian for "wild boar"? A friend owns a restaurant with a similar name in Florence, and Moncada always loved the flavorful meat. He serves it here as a slow-simmered ragu over big ribbons of pappardalle pasta ($13.95), one of the many reasonably priced regional Italian dishes on his refreshing menu. Though many aspects are similar to Due Nicola, Moncada said he wanted Il Cinghiale to be truer to his native country.
You won't find parmigiana on the menu (though the kitchen will make it if you ask). What you will find are dishes traditionally found in Piedmont and Tuscany, Rome and (of course) Sicily, along with seasonal dishes.
Weekly specials are a particular highlight. Our favorite was a light appetizer Moncada encouraged us to try: a Sicilian eggplant salad made from delicately pan-fried chunks of eggplant tossed with sweetened white wine vinegar, capers and green olives, and sprinkled with specks of pungent basil ($9.95). Speck, a smoked prosciutto traditional in northern Italy, played a key role in two other specials. Thin, rich slices were served alongside ripe figs stuffed with goat cheese in a simple, beautiful appetizer ($9.95), and crisp shards were sprinkled on a Chianti risotto with Swiss chard and cannellini beans ($16.95). It was exciting to see beautiful zucchini blossoms, attached to baby zucchini and stuffed with goat cheese, though their breading was a little soggy ($9.95).
A similar simplicity characterized other dishes we tried from the regular menu: a simple chopped seafood ragout tangled with black squid ink tagliolini needed no further adornment ($17.95), and air-dried beef known as bresaola was brightened by fresh arugula and sharp Parmesan cheese ($9.95). Skip the veal Milanese, which was so underseasoned that its breading just tasted like flour ($17.95).
For dessert (all $6.50), our favorite choices were fresh, cakey tiramisù and not-too-sweet pistachio cake, both made in house. Far less special were a cannoli and cheesecake that leaned more toward New York than Italy.
Though Moncada supervises the kitchen, he continues his tradition of personally presiding over the dining room. He is courteous but not effusive to non-regulars, preferring to hang at familiar tables or watch television during slow periods. We were amused by his deadpan expressions — when a woman came in and asked, "No bar?" he replied with a straight face, "No bar. Bring your own. Bring me one, too." When he looked at my friend's cleaned pasta plate, he asked, "No good? Sorry, man."
Compared with the packed parking lot at nearby Segovia Steakhouse, Il Cinghiale's half-empty dining room indicates a slow summer. But word is catching on — not long after my dinners, I got an e-mail from a reader who had also just dined there, saying she would happily drive 45 minutes to return because it seemed the closest Jersey restaurant to Tuscany. To that, I'd add that most of the prices are great values, with most entrees under $20, and the BYO designation should seal it for anyone looking for a moderately priced, satisfyingly simple night out.
Il Cinghiale Trattoria ** 1/2
201 Main St., Little Ferry; 201-440-2272
Food: Regional Italian dishes, many refreshingly simple.
Ambience: Simple, quiet trattoria in Little Ferry.
Service: The dining room is personally run by the courteous owner.
Value: Excellent; prices are quite reasonable for the quality. Appetizers $6.95 to $11.95, entrees $13.95 to $22.95.
Would be good for: Low-key Italian dinner; those looking for Italian dishes beyond red sauce.
Less appropriate for: Destination dinner.
Recommended dishes: Eggplant salad special, pappardalle al ragu di cinghiale, tagliolini neri al ragu di pesce, tiramisu, pistachio cake.
Hours: Lunch: noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Dinner: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday.
Liquor, wine: BYO.
Noise level: Quiet on our visits, though may be louder when full.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V.
Reservations: Recommended for Friday and Saturday nights.
Accommodations for children: Items available on request, half-portions, highchairs.
Dress: Smart casual.
Early-bird specials or deals: No.
Parking: Lot in back, street in front.
Reviewed: Aug. 19, 2011.
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.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: northjersey.com/foodblog Twitter: elisaung