It was a February evening that reminded you why snowbirds go to Florida for the winter, and a party for three was finishing up a delicious early dinner of seafood, steak and pasta at a corner table. The dapper maitre d’ welcomed two men in from the cold as a woman took their coats.
“You got room for us?” one of them asked. He had a twinkle in his eye you could see even in the tastefully dim light.
“I’ll try to squeeze you in,” the maitre d’ smiled back. He collected a pair of menus and a wine list and led them from the long bar to the nearly empty main dining room.
Henry Mendez is general manager and maitre d’ of Settimo Cielo Ristorante Italiano, which opened in November 2006. If he has been frustrated by slow dinner business, it doesn’t show. In fact, his confident, almost serene demeanor may be exactly what is needed to conquer what many say is a monumental task: attracting dinner business downtown.
Most restaurants need at least two strong periods of the day, says Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, who observes that the mass exodus of state workers each afternoon takes a great deal of potential business away from downtown Trenton.
She sees Trenton as a place where new restaurants can and will succeed, but thinks it will take enterprises that can be patient as they develop their customer bases.
“Towns like New Brunswick, that are today considered dining destinations, or towns like Hoboken or Red Bank – these things didn’t happen overnight,” said Dowdell, who was not familiar with Settimo Cielo. “You have to have a business that is able to withstand the period of time that takes [to build a following].”
For the moment at least, Mendez may also be pleased to have opened the doors at all. It is more than three years since Franco Rivas, chef and owner, bought the former Commini’s Italian-American Restaurant in November 2003.
Back then, neither he nor Mendez could have had any idea it was going to be three years before they opened for business.
Mendez, 35, and Rivas, 40, have come to Trenton from New York City, where they worked together most recently at a “top-rated” Italian restaurant in TriBeCa that Mendez was reluctant to name. They are originally from Ecuador, a country that has a tradition of supplying talented cooks and staff to New York City restaurants. Mendez moved here in 1989, Rivas around 1984.
They were visiting family in the Lawrenceville area one day in 2003 and decided to see if Trenton was the place to find out if they had what it took to run a restaurant. Their search led them eventually to Commini’s, on the first block of East Front Street.
“We talked to Mr. Commini and we asked him if the place was for sale,” Mendez said. “He said, ‘Everything is for sale in life.’”
After a couple weeks of negotiations, they agreed on a price and Rivas had his restaurant. He and Mendez traveled to Italy, and in Modena, a city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, they told a chef named Gabriella Costi that they were new restaurateurs.
They asked her what she thought they should name their new place. She told them to call it Settimo Cielo, which in English means “seventh heaven.”
“She gave us the name,” Mendez said. “The first person we asked.”
Settimo Cielo is larger than you expect. Its renovated wood-paneled façade betrays a spacious interior, with four main rooms: two dining rooms, a private dining room and the bar.
The only thing that remains from the Commini’s days is the massive refinished wooden art-deco bar. With the help of East Windsor architect Rick Perez, Rivas and Mendez waded through 36 months of permits and construction for what Mendez calls a “99 percent renovation.” He won’t say what the refurbishment cost, except that it was much more than expected.
When you sit down, the deep-toned colors, elegant but uncomplicated decor and white tablecloths are your first clues that you’re in for a fine dining experience. The proof, though, is in the excellent ly prepared food.
Mendez classifies Settimo Cielo’s cuisine as northern Italian with a contemporary twist. Using mostly local ingredients, including meat from City Beef in Trenton, Rivas has crafted a menu that contains a comforting array of Italian staples like the fried calamari appetizer and veal saltimbocca.
Yet there are plenty of intriguing dishes as well. Mendez said one of his favorites is the portobello al barolo appetizer ($9), a hearty mushroom topped with crab meat and fresh mozzarella in a wine sauce. He also recommends the pollo campagnola ($12), chicken sauteed in white wine and served with roasted peppers, potatoes and sausage.
For the time being, there is just one menu and one set of prices, even though dinner portions are larger than lunch. Mendez hopes the reduced evening prices entice more evening diners to give his restaurant a chance.
“Nine out of 10 people said ‘You have a big chance of failure’ [trying to attract dinner business],” Mendez said. “But [the chef] is sure his food is going to bring people down here. ‘I’ll make sure the people come back,’ he says.”
Settimo Cielo Ristorante Italiano, 17 E. Front St., Trenton. Phone (609) 656-8877. Hours Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. During the day there is ample parking across the street in an eight-story garage, but that is closed at night. Street parking is usually available on South Warren Street in the evenings.