by Len Lear
Years from now, when they are gaining a national profile, I want to be able to say I was the first restaurant writer to discover Il Villaggio, an exciting fine dining Italian BYOB at 211 Berlin Rd. in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Now you might well ask, “Why on earth should we go all the way to New Jersey for an Italian restaurant when there are so many good ones within a few miles of Chestnut Hill, not to mention center city and South Philly?”
First of all, it is an ideal place to stop for dinner if you’re coming back from a weekend at the shore. Furthermore, it only took us about a half-hour to get to Il Villaggio from Chestnut Hill. And unlike center city and South Philly, where legal parking spaces are about as valuable as an engagement ring (and a lot more rare), Il Villaggio has its own specious parking lot.
And the prices are quite reasonable. In addition, their BYOB policy is non-pareil. There is no corkage fee; their buckets have real crushed ice (unlike those silly lucite cylinders they have in so many restaurants), and they will even supply cocktail glasses with ice if you bring pre-made cocktails (which we did during our second visit).
A friend of ours who owns a hair salon on Route 70 in Cherry Hill (he was formerly at Grant Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard), who had eaten at Il Villaggio several times, insisted that we try it out. “Once you do, you’ll be hooked,” he said.
He was right. Our two visits to Il Villaggio have been virtually flawless. The only hiccup is that during the second visit, two of the four diners thought the homemade gnocchi was not quite as soft and dreamy as they were during our previous visit. The other two diners dissented. All were in agreement that every other dish, as well as the service and décor, rated a “10.”
Il Villaggio was opened on Jan. 14 of this year by four classy young men — brothers Artan and Arber Murtaj and brothers Andi Lelaj and Elton “Tony” Lelaj. (The building was previously home to Nonna’s, a French restaurant.)
Artan and Arber are from Gjilan, Kosovo (in the former Yugoslavia), and Andi and Elton are from Shkoder, Albania. All had restaurant experience in their homelands and continued working in restaurants after coming to the U.S. nine years ago. They had all worked in hotels such as Hilton and Sheraton and high-end Philly restaurants like Davio’s Italian Steakhouse. “We had to learn a new language and a new culture when we came here,” said Andi, a handsome charmer with a sunshine smile who speaks better English than most Americans.
“It helped that we love what we do … We looked for a while for the right location. We wanted the perfect restaurant and location, and in the end I believe we got it. Business is great, and it continuous to grow with each passing week. We chose Italian cuisine because we grew up by the Adriatic Sea, and it was our everyday cuisine.”
Chef Tony, a graduate of the Hospitality Training Institute of Philadelphia, pays homage to Italian classics. His home-made pastas are a grill’s best friend. Our eyes were drunk with the sight of the textbook-perfect soft pillows of gnocchi, glistening with a coat of pomodoro sauce ($15). This is pasta with a swagger. It was like eating butter with a texture.
The burrata cheese salad ($12) could almost be the MVP of a dinner. The exquisite burrata (“buttered” in Italian) is ridiculously rich. Burrata resembles a ball of mozzarella, but this cheese is softer and has an interior that spills out, revealing soft, stringy curd and fresh cream. It could ride solo, but its soul mate in the salad is juicy tomatoes, the squirtiest we have had in a while. Their texture makes a great marriage with the soft burrata. One bite of this combination, and I was magnetized to the plate.
A portobello mushroom appetizer was draped with the scented silk of gorgonzola cheese. It sang with notes of spinach and hints of fig from a balsamic reduction, while coins of roasted peppers lent an irresistable soulfulness without ever feeling heavy-handed ($8). Chef Tony recently added more homemade pasta dishes like the goat cheese sun-dried tomatoes and crab raviolis.
When it comes to seafood, Il Villaggio is the reel deal. A pistachio crust for a pan-roasted salmon entree, for example, provides the backbeat to a song your taste buds will love to sing ($19). I kneel at the altar of chef Tony for his subtle citrus white wine sauce and bow my head to him for putting the sauce at the service of the fork-tender salmon, accompanied by al dente veggies and potatoes.
A whole fish branzino (1.5 pounds, $35), filleted by Andi at tableside (as is the Dover sole), collapsed at the touch of my teeth into air perfumed with the distilled essence of herbs.
During both of our recent visits, we were too full to sample dessert except for one portion of ambrosial pistachio gelato ($6).
Il Villaggio has a comfortable Old World atmosphere, and in addition to the bucolic main dining room there are several private rooms which all together can accommodate up to 300 guests. As a result, they have been doing several baby and bridal showers, birthday and anniversary celebrations, business events and wedding parties. They also have alfresco dining in a 55-seat patio surrounded by grape vines that make you feel as if you are in Tuscany.
“Our plans,” said Andi, “are to work hard and to make Il Villaggio the best restaurant on the east coast.” A lofty ambition, to put it mildly, but this restaurant’s future is almost unlimited. If you look on yelp.com for customer comments about Il Villaggio, you’ll find that comments less than a rave are as rare as Asian faces on Mount Rushmore.
For more information or directions, call 856-795-1778 or visit www.ilvillaggiocherryhill.com.