For anchor restaurants serving the waterfront office towers occupying Jersey City’s Newport neighborhood, business centers around the bar. At VB3, chef Mike Colletti found his niche with iced vodka taps and ladies’-night EDM Thursdays. Taphaus’s Chris Nirschel placates with maple-bacon bourbon and homemade pretzels under a wall of televisions. But unbeknownst to the nightly tide of happy-hour drinkers sipping High West Bourye sweetened with Caribbean falernum and aromatic Tiki bitters at year-old Battello (502 Washington Boulevard, Jersey City; 201-798-1798), it’s the pedigree of affable, analytic barman Ray Keane that keeps the sunset scene abuzz.
A veteran pastry chef turned mixologist, Keane’s experience includes the country’s most modernist kitchens and cocktail programs including wd~50, Princeton’s Elements, and Chicago’s Alinea and the Aviary.
“I don’t miss the kitchen. People ask me all the time,” Keane told us. “Even if I worked the same hours, it doesn’t feel the same. In a kitchen you don’t see how customers react. Now when they take the drink and I see a smile, I get that reward.”
And on weekends, he even does weddings.
It was the desire for a wedding venue at Newport Marina, the opposite of the small plates, pizza, and bistros that dominate downtown Jersey City one PATH stop south, that inspired Turtle Club owner Cory Checkett to transform the lagging Michael Anthony’s space into Battello, calling on HGTV star Anthony Carrino to redesign the venue and longtime friend Ryan DePersio to reboot the kitchen. And while the stigma of a wedding venue means Battello doesn’t bask in the same Jersey City hype as Thirty Acres and Talde, DePersio’s cachet as the chef behind Montclair’s Fascino has earned the restaurant statewide destination status, with glowing reviews from the New York Times and NJ Monthly in recent months.
Still, the restaurant’s standout dishes either evolve with the seasons or vanish altogether. A late crop of spring produce only just found its way onto the menu, plates of chilled asparagus cozying up alongside coconut soup floated with pickled hearts of palm, and a grilled ribeye sweetened with marinated heirloom cherry tomatoes. Also new is a tuna rollatini that best defines DePersio’s philosophy of “Italian cooking without borders,” developed while cooking for Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Bouley.
For pastry chef Joseph Gabriel, a veteran of Oceana, rave winter creations like powdered peanut butter over popcorn ice cream have given way to classics.
“I have the ability to push boundaries, but at the same token, because I’m getting older, I’m really loving the classics at this point,” Gabriel says. “I think a lot of chefs in general are going so modern they’re forgetting where modernism came from. You have to take a step back and do the classic first, reinvent, then push it forward.”
As for Battello’s status on the fringes of Jersey City’s dining scene, DePersio finds more than enough satisfaction cooking in what he describes as the Brooklyn of New Jersey. “My dream as a kid was to own a restaurant in New York, but then I opened a restaurant with my family, I started having kids, and even though I’m working all the time, being a chef and restaurateur in the state where I live, I can still have time for a life.”
Cooking in the Garden State also gives a second meaning to DePersio’s “Italian without borders” philosophy — he tells us “a lot of successful people move [to New Jersey] from New York to have families, and their friends will visit from the city and always look unhappy to be here. But by the end of their meal, they’re transformed.”
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