Last month “Wanda” posted a query on chowhound.com, the website where average joes like you and me rate restaurants around the country. “I will be in Trenton for a very short time. I’m looking for a place to have lunch near the capitol or train station or en route walking between them.” Out of 10 replies, only one Italian restaurant (in a town of Italian restaurants) was recommended: Settimo Cielo.
I’ve been three times in the past month, and it lives up to the translation of its name, “seventh heaven.” Everybody’s talking about it: one of my co-workers, a Trenton resident, says that every time she goes into her bank, one of the tellers always asks her, “Have you been to Settimo Cielo yet?”
So just what exactly are they doing right? First, location: sandwiched in a perfect spot within walking distance to Passage Theater and Patriot Theater at the War Memorial (two favorites of U.S.1 readers) on East Front Street, there is ample on-the-street parking, weekend and weekday evenings alike. See my foolproof driving directions at end.
The second thing they have right is a great bar — a huge, highly-polished wood bar from the Art Deco period, gleaming and inviting, just like you want a bar to be. The bar hails from the original establishment, Commini’s Italian-American Restaurant, which had operated for 50 years before Settimo Cielo’s chef/owner Franco Rivas and general manager/maitre d’ Henry Mendez bought it in 2003.
Rivas and Mendez both hail from Ecuador, so you might think, what do they know about Italian cooking? Well, Ecuador is known for sending talent to New York City restaurants and Rivas and Mendez worked together at an Italian restaurant in the financial district in New York. Once the sale of Commini’s was sealed, Rivas and Mendez hopped a plane to Italy. In Modena in northern Italy they met chef Gabriella Costi, who suggested that they name their new restaurant Settimo Cielo. It stuck.
Three years later, the final renovation was done. And the buzz started almost immediately.
The third thing Settimo Cielo’s got right is ambience. In this day and age of multi-million dollar, super-slick, my materials cost more than your materials restaurant decor, Rivas and Mendez know instinctively that less is more. All people really want or need is a peaceful visual, which at Settimo Cielo means a simple floral carpet, well-spaced tables with immaculate white tablecloths, and tasteful paintings on the walls. Nothing more. Kudos to East Windsor architect Rick Perez for spearheading the overhaul with an Old World eye.
The fourth thing Settimo Cielo’s got right is the service. Friendly and attentive. At my first visit, I was thrilled to see William, a sweet, ultra-polite waiter I had met at his former employer, La Mezzaluna in Princeton. He is also from Ecuador and we’ve had many a good chat, as he’s eager to practice his English. That night I had four dining companions, two from Russia. One of our waitresses told us her family was from the Ukraine, so plenty of happy banter ensued. We started at 6 p.m. and had tickets to an 8 p.m. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concert at Patriot Theater. We had such a good time, it was 7:50 before we knew it and we had to dash to the concert — without dessert. We promised to return after the concert and the bartender said, “We’ll be here!”
The fifth — and many would say, the most important — thing Settimo Cielo’s got right is the food. The waiter always brings mini bruschetta, a fresh tomato and basil mixture tucked into tiny fluted pastry cups, compliments of the chef. Who does “compliments of the chef” anymore? This is a good thing. Also on the house is a plate of sweet potato croquettes — not Italian but absolutely delicious — and perfectly cooked green beans, delivered with the entrees.
My husband has ordered the same thing all three times we’ve been and he says he can’t order anything else he loves this dish so much: Pollo al Portobello, breast of chicken sauteed with Portobella mushrooms, peas, and sun-dried tomatoes ($12). Other chicken dishes include Pollo Sorrentino, breast of chicken layered with prosciutto, eggplant and Fontina cheese ($12) and Pollo Campagnola, sauteed with white wine, roasted peppers, potatoes, and sausage ($12). The five veal offerings include vitello Saltimbocca — veal scallopini layered with prosciutto, served over sauteed spinach ($14).
The chef’s bent towards northern Italian cuisine allows for such offerings the Salmone Livornese, fresh wild salmon sauteed with fresh tomatoes, olives, capers, and onions ($15) and the tilapia special, prepared similarly ($21). Other fish dishes include Gamberi Fra Diavolo, jumbo shrimp sauteed with garlic, olive oil, cherry peppers and tomato ($17) and Sogliola Fiorentino, fresh filet of sole sauteed with white wine and lemon served over spinach ($17).
Of course an Italian restaurant must have homemade pasta, and the offerings here include Spaghetti Bolognese ($12); Fettucine al Salmone, homemade flat noodles with fresh salmon in a parmagiano and cream sauce ($12), ravioli Rosa, homemade spinach and cheese ravioli in a tomato and cream sauce ($12), and Rollatini Monte Bianco, fresh pasta shells filled with mushroom, spinach, and ricotta cheese in a tomato and cream sauce ($12).
So the sixth thing they’ve got right is the prices. The bill for the five of us that first night was a slim $180 and — are you ready for this? — that included appetizers and entrees and two bottles of wine. TripAdvisor.com writes: “Hurry before the prices go up and then afterward you will still want to hurry because you will need reservations and soon won’t get one for weeks.” When we came back to the bar after the concert, we shared some chocolate cake, can’t remember the name, only that one serving was rich enough to satisfy five adults. The ever-attentive bartender kept our coffee cups and water glasses filled.
On our subsequent visits, the dining room has been filled with what appear to be happy professionals. At one of my visits, my dining companion recognized a tableful of lawyers from the Trenton office of the prestigious Gibbons firm (which, 210 attorneys strong, moved its headquarters into the ultra-swanky new One Gateway Center in Newark). Clearly other professionals have followed suit. Debby D’Arcangelo, a trustee of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, posted this rave on the Trenton Downtown Association’s blog: “We went to the new Italian restaurant on Front Street, Settimo Cielo, last Friday night with some friends and had a great time. The food was delicious, the service was really good, and the setting is warm and inviting. We’re looking forward to going back soon!”
Settimo Cielo, 17 West Front Street Trenton. 609-656-8877; fax: 609-656-9077. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m (if you want to come back after the theater or a concert for dessert, let the bartender know and he’ll stay open for you). Closed Sunday.
No-brainer directions from Princeton (15 minutes tops from our offices behind the Hyatt Regency Princeton): Route 1 South, exit at Market Street. At the T, turn right onto South Stockton. Take your first left, East Front Street. Pass the Mill Hill Playhouse (home of Passage Theater) on your left, go through next light, and Settimo Cielo is on your left.