Serendipity has played a decisive role in the life of Dan Richer, chef and owner of Arturo’s Osteria and Pizzeria in Maplewood. Raised in suburban New Jersey, Richer was set to graduate from Rutgers when he decided to take a trip through Italy instead. Making his way from the Swiss border down through the Amalfi coast, he had an epiphany. “I saw real Italian food for the first time, not what I was used to back home,” he said.
When he returned, he started cooking and learning everything he could about Italian cuisine. Though he had no formal training, Richer had picked up the basics in the time-honored way: watching his mother in the kitchen. In fact, he and his brother got so good at it they would have dinner on the table when his mother got back from work.
His tasting menu at Arturo’s, which has been the subject of rave reviews in places like The New York Times, also came about almost by accident. In 2006, Richer bought Arturo’s, a standard pizza joint known for tasty brick oven pies. He kept the original menu but slowly started adding items that reflected his love for local and seasonal ingredients.
A handful of regular customers took notice and began showing up for dinner with a simple request: “Feed us.” Richer happily obliged, whipping up dishes composed of fresh ingredients sourced from places like the Union Square Farmer’s Market. Word spread, and before long Richer made the menu a weekly event. It is currently served every Saturday night – but they’re fully booked through the end of the year.
Like most true foodies, Richer can get a bit obsessed. For instance, on his frequent trips to Italy when he sees a menu he likes, he will wait around for hours until the place opens. “I’m a weirdo,” he cheerfully admitted. In Torino, he stood outside a pasta shop until the owner let him in for a tutorial on tortellini-making. “It’s really labor-intensive,” he said. On his most recent visit, he harvested olives and made oil in an Orvieto olive grove.
He also spent the past year perfecting his bread making skills. “I think I’ve finally got it right,” he said. The final product can be sampled on Arturo’s daily pizza menu, as well as in a recent tasting menu starter of crostini with fresh goat cheese, sprinkled with hazelnuts and peppery olive oil. Richer’s pasta making prowess was shown off to great result in a bowl of hand cut tagliarini with cauliflower topped with a perfectly done egg, cooked sous vide.
Thin slivers of finocchiona, a Tuscan salami flavored with fennel seeds, were accompanied by small, intense olives. A salad of butter lettuce, golden beets, breakfast radishes and Stayman Winesap apples, dressed in a basic vinaigrette, showcased Garden State produce at its best.
A soup of local butternut squash was dusted with a handful of parmigiano reggiano and a squirt of olive oil. The main course was succulent braised pork shoulder served with blue potatoes and leeks. (A vegetarian friend was accommodated with an entrée of unctuously earthy mushroom ravioli.) Dessert was a simple but luscious whipped fresh ricotta topped with tart cranberries and hazelnuts.
The dining room felt cozy and lively, and service hit the sweet spot of warmth and efficiency. Richer is a congenial host and makes sure to stop by every table at least once. A couple of quibbles: real napkins and larger wine glasses would be a nice touch, and I would have appreciated a basket of that delicious bread naked, the better to enjoy its crusty tang.
Six courses for $48 per person (the restaurant is BYO) is an amazing value, one that Richer is proud of. “The general population should be able to eat a well-prepared meal with healthy, quality ingredients,” he said. “Between lunch, dinner and the tasting menu, we reach about 500 people a day.”
That’s a lot of happy diners. For Richer, pleasing people through food seems simply to be his destiny. “I feel like I don’t work a day in my life,” he said.
Arturo’s Osteria & Pizzeria
180 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood