WAYNE, N.J.– The name of Robbie Felice's Wayne eatery, Viaggio Ristorante – which opens Wednesday – is a nod to both his Italian heritage and his experience.
"Viaggio" translates to travel or journey.
“I feel like what makes you who you are as a chef is all your experiences,” said Felice, 25, who worked at restaurants across the U.S. and Europe after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America
He began by washing dishes at his father’s Denville restaurant, Casa Di Amici.
“He would pay me $20 a night,” Felice said. “I thought I was the man.”
Felice later interned at chef Mario Bateli’s Manhattan restaurant, Babbo, before working the pasta station at Batelli’s B&B Ristorante in Las Vegas.
“I loved being busy, slinging pots and pans,” Felice said. “They nicknamed me Scrappy. I was always the loudest one in the kitchen.”
He was promoted to sous chef but opted to explore Europe. He spent six months in seven countries – including Holland, Spain and Italy – living with family or on friends' sofas, he said.
In Holland, he worked for Sergio Herman, whom Felice considers one of the best chefs in the world.
“He’s one of two chefs to get a perfect score on the Gault et Millau [a French restaurant guide],” he said.
Felice said he begged for a job or internship and received a three-month trial at Herman’s Pure-C restaurant.
“I would have easily taken the job [full-time]," he said, "but it was so hard getting a visa.”
His first day began at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t end until 2:30 the next morning.
“It was the most intense work I’ve ever dealt with,” Felice recalled. “I remember getting my [butt] kicked. It was the craziest thing I’d ever done.
“I worked 105 hours in five days [and] slept 24 hours that weekend.”
At Viaggio, the cuisine “is going to be a mix of Mario Batali[-style] food meets all my other experiences,” he said. “I want to try and keep it sexy. It’s hard to make Italian food sexy – it’s just pasta and a plate.”
Since Viaggio isn't expected to open until August, Felice wasn't ready to let on how he'll do that.
“We’ll see,” he said. "I look forward to it."
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