UPDATED: Last night’s Kitchen Nightmares, Montclair edition, was a nightmare for Leone’s manager Michael Restaino and a star turn for his mother, the unsinkable Rose Leone. Restaino was to blame for virtually everything that had gone wrong in the South Park street restaurant since his mother had to leave the helm due to health problems two years ago (she went in for a routine kidney stone removal and ended up in a coma!) Spoiler alert — if you want to watch on DVR, then read no further.
It was good to see Rose Leone back and in rare form as she flirted with Ramsay (“he’s hot!”) and basically told her son to grow a pair. We were half expecting an appearance from Restaino’s brother, Dominic Restaino of Cuban Pete’s (now that would have been good reality TV!), but nary a mention. What was mentioned a lot was Leone’s tired decor and a creepy oil painting of a baby we wish we could get our hands on for this party.
There was plenty of scary stuff, too. The opening scenes (mystery meat in the freezer from last Thanksgiving, a chef spitting out food when asked to taste his own dish) would give severe diner’s remorse to anyone who had eaten at Leone’s pre-Gordon Ramsay. Montclair (“affluent suburb just 20 minutes from Manhattan”) and its other Italian restaurants, including Tosca and Giotto, got love in the episode, as Ramsay showed the Leone’s staff what their food should look like, in an art exhibit around the corner at Church Street’s Gallery 51, showcasing photos of food from their competition. (Hey Montclair chefs, if your food was part of art work featured, write me at tips at baristanet dot com and tell us what dish.)
Update: Cynthia DePersio, co-owner of Fascino/Bar Cara confirmed that food from Fascino and Giotto were featured, adding that Gordon spent about 90 minutes at Fascino, tasted five or more courses, including the mozzarella w/pinenut dressing and ricotta gnocchi with sausage bolognese [I knew I recognized that one]. She also said the spot with him taking photos of dishes was our place, booths were evident and son Anthony, Fascino’s manager is seen very quickly handing Ramsay a dish.
After a lot of angst over bad food handling practices that resulted in closing the restaurant down in the middle of dinner service, the predictable happened and Ramsay made over the restaurant, losing the collection of strange artwork (bring back creepy baby!) and reworking the space with a more contemporary scheme of red, white, black and gray. He also made over the former menu — pairing down a book of 150 choices to a scaled-down one page.
He had a rough start, but Michael ultimately pulled it together and everyone was happy (at least on TV), especially Rose. Yours truly was there the night of the makeover, and what stood out from the dishes we tried on the revised menu were the mushrooms, truffle and taleggio pizza and a crab cappellini with chili, lime and garlic (albeit too much garlic — something Ramsay had scolded them about). We sent back a pork tenderloin with eggplant, pancetta, white beans (pork was tough and overdone, beans were not fully cooked). The shrimp scampi on a potato crostini was a clever presentation (potatoes were cut with skins on to resemble a hearty slice of bread) but the dish was overall swimming in too much oil. No complaints about two desserts — a creamy panna cotta with strawberries and lemon and a chocolate mousse cake were both homeruns.
Picky things: They served the bread in a basket with plastic packages of butter and filled up the table with pizzeria-size jars of spices – crushed red pepper, oregano. That took up a lot of table space and made for a confusing dining experience (is it a pizzeria or something more upscale?). The service was very attentive and warm that night — and it was good to see Michael get away from the TV and into the kitchen, managing. Still, last night’s art show of beautifully prepared food from Montclair’s other Italian restaurants shows how hard Leone’s will have to work to compete. If you’ve been back since the makeover — give us your review.