It’s déjà vu all over again — La Rocca Osteria (formerly Osteria Giotto) is open (again!) at 21 Midland Avenue and Montclair’s lasagna lovers couldn’t be happier!
Robert Pantusa, former chef/owner of Osteria Giotto, has teamed up with chef Nicholas Houlbert to create La Rocca, which features many of Osteria Giotto’s signature dishes, as well as some exciting, new creations.
Osteria Giotto had left the space back in July 2016, when partners Luca Valerin and Pantusa closed their iconic Montclair eatery for a much-needed break.
The partners opened Cafe Giotto in Fall of 2017, a cafe/eatery on Church Street in the long-closed Beans Coffee space.
Pantusa saw an opportunity to return and reinvent the beloved authentic Italian restaurant when he learned Bluff City BBQ was closing and that his former restaurant space would once again be available.
“Giotto was still and will always be a part of me,” says Pantusa who was excited to start a new chapter.
Pantusa and Valerin decided to end their partnership. Valerin, who enjoys the bread baking and pastries that Cafe Giotto has become famous for, will continue to own and run Cafe Giotto while Pantusa has launched La Rocca on his own.
“In the end, I was working almost the same hours at Cafe Giotto that I had been at Osteria Giotto,” says Pantusa, adding that he knew he would always want to come back, but needed the time to rethink what he really wanted.
Some of the challenge of reinventing Osteria Giotto into La Rocca was striking a balance between the favorite dishes that customers had almost a religious devotion to while still being able to create some exciting new offerings in collaboration with Houlbert, a veteran of some top restaurants in both New York City and France.
Pantusa says creating in the kitchen with Houlbert is yielding a delicious mix of dishes on the menu featuring “Italian with some more Mediterranean flavors.”
You can expect the classic pasta favorites Osteria Giotto had been famous for — lasagna (of course!) and tagliolini with seafood, as well as those perfectly cooked risottos.
“When you have a dish that’s great the way it is, you don’t change it,” says Pantusa, adding that there are some other new influences updating a few classic dishes.
For instance, nduja, a spicy soft Calabrese sausage, makes it way into a trio of arancini (rice balls, $13); the other two arancini feature smoked provolone and bolognese.
A dish Houlbert created winning raves is a turbot with white wine, caper, butter sauce, and served with salsify and pureed celery root ($32).
Opening a restaurant in the space where he worked for so long is exciting, and feels both familiar and new at the same time, says Pantusa. Some of the staff who worked at Osteria Giotto have returned and there is a new energy and excitement.
The dining room seems familiar, but different, too, sporting a lighter, cleaner look, thanks to help from Pantusa’s friend, interior designer Michael Aiduss.
La Rocca officially opened last week. The first few nights were like a reunion; the restaurant was packed with ecstatic regulars. Joanne Berlangieri, La Rocca manager and her daughter, Bella, who both worked so hard to get the restaurant off the ground, were there to greet the happy returning customers.
“My wife Caroline had the idea to call everyone in our old reservation book and give them the first chance to make a reservation,” says Pantusa, who adds that the feedback and expression on people’s faces when they come in and order up their favorites has been incredibly rewarding.
La Rocca, 21 Midland Avenue, Montclair, 973-746-0707