Lombata di Vitello, a veal chop finished in a sage sauce, is one of the inventive dishes created by chef Franco Rivas. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Many restaurants have found the economic climate in Trenton to be the seventh circle of Hell. Pete Lorenzo’s, Marsilio’s, Chi-Chi’s, Maxine’s and T.R.Y.J’s are just a few of the new and old eateries that have succumbed to tough times, changing demographics and a dining public that, for a variety of reasons, refuses to come to Trenton after dark.

Settimo Cielo, whose name means “seventh heaven” in Italian, has been an exception. After opening in November of 2006 in the space formerly occupied by Commini’s at 17 E. Front Street, the fine-dining Italian restaurant has hung in there.

And for general manager Henry Mendez, that much is a victory.

“Are we successful 100 percent? I don’t think we are,” Mendez said. “Thank God we’ve been able to hang in there. For a restaurant business to hang in there for more than four years, I consider it a success already.”

Mendez started the restaurant along with chef Franco Rivas and a silent financial partner. He and Rivas, Ecuadorians who hail from the New York restaurant scene, fell in love with the location while visiting relatives in Hamilton.

There was lots of foot traffic, Mendez recalls. A big employer (the state government) nearby and lots of well-dressed people walking around town. Opening a nice Italian restaurant there seemed like a no-brainer. Of course, that was during the daytime.

It took two years to open Settimo Cielo. The renovation was a painful process. Initially they planned to just re-paint a few walls, but soon they discovered that one wall had to be replaced. Then the walls connecting to that one.

“It was like a domino effect,” Mendez said.

After all the dominos fell, the only thing left standing from the original building was the bar.

When the restaurant opened, the well-dressed people from the state house came. They ate lunch and told their friends about it. Gov. Jon Corzine ate there, and Gov. Chris Christie is a regular. He prefers pasta and salad, Mendez said.

The chef’s inventive cuisine and reasonable prices — entrees run about $20 — have drawn in the customers by day. Before starting Settimo Cielo, Rivas had about 25 years in the restaurant business. The self-taught chef was best known for Da Nois restaurant, the Bayonne eatery that has expanded to locations in New York and New Jersey.

The menu he created for Settimo Cielo includes specialties such as Vitello al Limone, which is veal scallopine sauteed with white wine, lemon and capers.

Mendez said the veal dishes have become popular among lunch diners.

Among the fans of the restaurant is prominent nonprofit manager Debby D’Arcangelo.

D’Arcangelo and her family dine at Settimo Cielo at least once a week, she said. Her favorite dish is the ravioli rosa.

“I’m a huge fan,” she said. “I think the food is fabulous … The chef, Franco, is very inventive, but he also does classics really well.”

Getting more diners like D’Arcangelo to come to the restaurant has proven difficult.

“They’re afraid to come to the city at night. We hear that a lot. Some of our guests try to bring their friends back for dinner,” Mendez said. “They say, ‘I know a great place for dinner.’ ‘Where is it?’ ‘It’s in Trenton.’ ‘Trenton? Oh, never mind. I don’t want to go to Trenton.’”

Mendez said he does better when there are shows at the War Memorial or Passage Theater. He wishes they happened more often.

Mendez has high hopes for the future, and wants to expand the restaurant past its current size of 30 seats.

But for now, just surviving gives Settimo Cielo some bragging rights.

“I go around to some of the places in the suburbs. They are doing good business. They might be dealing with the economy, but we’re dealing with that and the perception of Trenton. That means we’re strong.”

Settimo Cielo is located at 17 E. Front St. in Trenton. For more information, call (609) 656-8877.

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Diccon Hyatt is business editor of U.S. 1. He has worked for Community News since 2006 and was previously community editor of the Ewing Observer, the Hopewell Express, the Lawrence Gazette, and the Trenton Downtowner. From 2003 to 2006, he was a general assignment reporter for the Middletown Transcript in Middletown, Delaware. In 2002, he graduated from the University of Delaware, where he was features editor of the student newspaper, The Review. He has won numerous awards from the Maryland-Delaware D.C. Press Association and the Association of Free Community Newspapers for features, news, and opinion writing. He is married and lives in Marlton, NJ.