Madison's Il Mondo Vecchio has stood the test of time
by Cody Kendall/The Star-Ledger Friday May 08, 2009, 3:56 PM
TONY KURDZUK/THE STAR-LEDGER
A view of the main dining room at Il Mondo Vecchio on Main Street in Madison. Il Mondo Vecchio. 72 Main St., Madison. Lunch: 11:45 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Closed Sundays. BYOW. Major credit cards. Neat casual dress. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended: (973) 301-0024. ilmondovecchio.com. THREE AND A HALF STARS.
Walk down Madison's Main Street past Il Mondo Vecchio and look through the window at the main dining room, offering a vista of white tablecloths and people enjoying themselves. What's the first emotion you feel looking at that scene?
I'll be honest; mine is envy, pure and simple. I want to be in there relaxing, having the waiter take good care of me as I savor the seared sea scallops in a light citrus sauce ($13) or the capellini with a slow-roasted meat sauce ($19), finished with creamy mascarpone. At the end of the meal, I'd have a delicious debate with myself over dessert ($8): Should it be the orange marinated in Grand Marnier or the cannolocini with fresh raspberries and the raspberry Chambord cream?
Since I have reviewed this restaurant only every nine years following its opening nearly two decades ago, there's been a lot of self-generated jealousy on my frequent strolls through Madison. It was gratifying to find on my return to Il Mondo Vecchio this spring after a long absence that my envy is merited. They've got the formula down pat at this well-maintained spot, which has passed the longevity test to keep on delivering outstanding Italian food with assurance and style.
Started by Michel Cetrulo, who learned cooking from his father, then went on to work in the kitchens of prestigious restaurants here and in Italy, Il Mondo Vecchio was a springboard to his success. Cetrulo now has a restaurant empire; he also owns two Felini Scadelis, in neighboring Chatham and Manhattan, as well as Piano Due in New York City and Sirena in Long Branch.
But to his credit and that of Egyptian-born part-owner Marco Bandly, who keeps a watchful eye on the premises, Il Mondo Vecchio has not dropped into the shadows as its successors came along. It still offers a pleasant atmosphere to showcase its top-notch food, produced by longtime chef Alberto Quartas. The choices are many and dazzling, with specials offering extra oomph, but I do wish they were listed in written form rather than reeled off by the servers. Our waiter, who was quite knowledgeable and helpful, didn't mention prices until we started requesting them. But we had to ask several times before he began giving them automatically for each item. Regular readers know that this rightly is one of my pet peeves. In the era where computers are omnipresent, how can failure to print out specials be excused? Who can remember the details of a dish when they are passed along verbally? Okay, enough questions. Print it out, then let the waiter explain the fine points as necessary.
The specials are worthy of consideration. As an alternative to the scallops with citrus sauce, for instance, we tried the scallops with mushrooms, asparagus and a saffron cream sauce ($14); more complex and robust than the usual option. House-made porcini mushroom ravioli with a truffle cream sauce ($15 as an appetizer, $22 as an entree) was simply delectable, making the most of the ingredients. Lamb ossobucco ($28) might be among the specials when you come to the restaurant, but our flirtation with lamb involved Toscana-style chops ($32), lavished with Parmesan, tomatoes and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. It was a huge meal on a plate, and with such varying elements, I was concerned that it would be a too much of many good things, but it melded together with panache.
It's necessary to pace yourself at Il Mondo Vecchio. Dinner starts with a wonderful bread plate highlighted by house-made foccaccia with caramelized onions, which can be teamed with flash-fried pieces of vegetables to make your own creative bruschetta. Perhaps after that you'd prefer something rather simple. Try the red snapper sauteed with fresh rosemary and garlic ($24), a sparkling dish highlighted by a blend of wild mushrooms and asparagus. In the same category is a veal chop ($36), grilled with rosemary and sage. The choices are legion, and everything we tried met our standards without question.
Desserts at too many restaurants are dullsville. They're either the same-old, same-old made in-house or the same-old, same-old brought in from the outside. That is so not the case at Il Mondo Vecchio, where there's a range of refreshing to opulent. In the first category is that marinated orange, decorated with thin strips of orange rind, topped with mint leaves and served with fresh strawberry slices.
I'm not a cannoli fan, having had too many that involved tough shells with heavy pastry cream. So I was thrilled to find the cannolini were the opposite, practically feathery with their filling of gentle cream, surrounded by raspberries and dusted with powdered sugar. "Heavenly" is the only word to describe them. Then there's the "very rich" chocolate torte, dark and dense, with hazelnut gelato to cut the intensity. Chocolate-painted phyllo dough with fresh cream and chocolate mousse is another boon for chocolate lovers. And if you're only comfortable with the expected, then you'll be happy with the Amaretto-flavored tiramisu or the ricotta cheesecake.
Don't want dessert, but long for something extra? There's always the cheese platter ($12), which includes Reggiano Parmigiano with white truffle, herbed goat cheese and Gorgonzola dressed up with a caramel drizzle.
Another note about the service: Both the wine that we brought and water were poured as necessary, and dirty plates were whisked away instantly to keep our table in order. We were always referred to as "guests," and that's what we felt like.
It's wonderful that Il Mondo Vecchio has held up so well over nearly 20 years in which hundreds of New Jersey restaurants have come and gone. The lesson here is that while novelty wears off quickly, real quality is enduring.