I never go to Italian restaurants in Connecticut because I was lucky and spoiled enough to have eaten in Italy - a lot - and I always feel disappointed in the American version of Italian cuisine. So when a friend begged me to review VALBELLA in Greenwich, I was reluctant to say the least. The pastry chef, she claimed, was world renowned and his food art simply had to be reviewed. I did some research and decided to acquiesce. For more than 20 years, the stately, Victorian Valbella has been the archetype for excellent but old school Italian cuisine in the Greenwich/Riverside area, and has successful sister locations in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and Midtown. And I can understand why. It is in no way funky or hip or cool but is extremely elegant and the food, though I am hesitant to admit it, was outstanding.
With 3 dining rooms plus the cozy and intimate wine cellar where diners may also enjoy their meals, Valbella, with Head Chef Frank Halili at the helm, is THE place to go for a sophisticated Italian meal. From intimate dinners to large corporate events, this is fine dining, no ifs, ands or buts. It is true that the crowd tends to be a bit older and service, though superior, verges on stuffy. But there is one spectacular twist which elevates Valbella and separates it from other Italian jaunts in the area; that twist is the extraordinary magic created by French Pastry Chef, Raphael Dequeker.
We came to sample Chef Dequeker's delights, and delights they were, but we first sampled the cuisine of Chef Halili. First to the table came some Italian CHARCUTERIE- assorted smoked and cured meats with chunks of the freshest and crumbliest Reggiano Parmiggiano. Here was the perfect combo of savory and salty meats with the tangy and often "itchy" Parmiggiano tantalizing our taste buds and preparing them for what was to come. A BEET SALAD with tomato, arugula, red onion and a delicate Chevre croquette, all drizzled with a slightly sweet, red pepper coulis was to follow.
Next came a most outrageous SHELLFISH Platter with chunks of tender, lump crab meat, fresh jumbo shrimp and succulent lobster, served with a choice of mustard or cocktail sauce. (Although I preferred ALL of the fish on their own, no sauce necessary, as the fresh taste of the shellfish was so outstanding.)
We were also treated to PAN SEARED SCALLOPS served in a crunchy Parmesan basket where the scallops were seared at a very high temperature. The result - a delicate crunch and slightly sweetened, caramelized outer layer and succulent, sweet, tender texture in the center.
There was a CHILEAN SEA BASS (first named Patagonian Tooth Fish, helping us appreciate that branding is everything!) in an airy potato wrap, baked with DIJON sauce and topped with apple puree. All the fish comes from Hunts Point and more specifically from Joe Cosenza Fish in the Bronx.
And of course, no Italian meal would be complete without a pasta dish and Chef Halili's FETTUCINE with cream sauce, white truffles and truffle oil was outrageously decadent. This dish was too much on top of everything else we were served but definitely a good choice if you are not gorging on 5 other courses during the same meal. We were full…
And then came the desserts.
Pastry Chef RAPHAEL DEQUEKER, son and grandson of pastry chefs before him (owners of the famous Patisserie Dequeker in Brittany) comes to Riverside after working for years at the world famous Ladurée in Paris. You know the one, home of those spectacular macarons that no one can resist? Right, that one. He has been at VALBELLA for 11 years. The delicacies that Chef Dequeker prepared for us were simply sublime.
The MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKE- appropriately oozy, ridiculously chocolatey and perfectly warm- had no calories what-so-ever. (If I believe it, it is so!) The NAPOLEON MILLE-FEUILLE, baked to order with the flakiest, paper thin layers and pastry cream filling with baked almond crunch and confectioners' sugar glaze top was spectacular.
The TIRAMISU- Italian for "pull me up" or "pick me up" - completely lived up to its name. This layered dessert consists of alternating layers of coffee-soaked Savoiardi (Italian, lady finger bisquits) and a sweet Mascarpone cream. To "pick me up," a Tiramisu must be light and fluffy. Chef Dequeker's almost floated away.
And finally, and in my personal opinion most spectacularly, came the soufflés. The CHOCOLATE soufflé was delicate in flavor and as light as a cloud. Most surprising, though, was the GRAN MARNIER soufflé. It is not something that I would normally order as I usually find desserts with liqueurs to be cloying and too sweet. But this soufflé was perfection. Delicate, light, airy, with just a hint of orange from the brandy-based liqueur, this soufflé was the pièce de résistance.
So Valbella is a little bit (Italian) country and a little bit (French) rock and roll. It's Italian without 3 tons of cheese and too much garlic. There is no chicken parm. and there is no heavy lasagne. They don't serve garlic bread saturated in butter. This is fine, Italian food. Real Italian. And with an amazing, French pastry chef to help finish off your meal with awesome desserts? Si, si, Valbella.. et Oui.
1309 East Putnam Ave
Riverside, Ct (203) 637-1155
Dinner served Mondays through Saturdays; Lunch serverd Mondays through Fridays