Chef Robbie Felice says he helps people find his newest restaurant by standing on the sidewalk right in front of it.
The place is called Pasta Ramen, a name that suggests the hybrid Italian/Japanese food served inside. On South Fullerton Avenue in downtown Montclair, the BYO opened in February, adding to his roster of Viaggio in Wayne and Osteria Crescendo in Westwood, both on NJM’s Top 30 list.
The reason Felice stood outside a lot in the early going is that there is no sign, at least in the conventional sense. A Batman-like beacon of light is projected onto the sidewalk showing the artful, if somewhat inscrutable, round logo representing crossed chopped sticks on the outline of a round plate. The restaurant’s black glass façade allows people inside to look out but not so much vice versa.
“People walk up to the door,” says Felice, 32, “and are not able to find it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been standing right outside and people ask me where it is.”
Months after opening, people still take pictures of the logo projected on the sidewalk. As Felice puts it, “Your phone eats first.”
The no-sign caprice has its roots in private dining events Felice hosted during the pandemic, featuring the Italian/Japanese meld called Wafu Italian.
“We did some speakeasy kind of secret pop-ups where we served Wafu Italian, and it took off,” he says. “In the last two and half years, I’ve done 10 locations in New Jersey, a few in New York City, and a few in Miami, Seattle and L.A., before eventually coming back here and opening Pasta Ramen in Montclair.”
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How do Italian and Japanese mate on the plate? In addition to Japanese Wagyu steaks, bao buns and fried calamari in spicy miso sauce, one of the most popular items is called mochi ramen. The noodles are made from gluten-free mochi (a gel-like rice cake) by the New Jersey branch of the Sun Noodle Company. Carbonara sauce is added tableside, along with egg yolk, chopped scallions, sesame seeds, lemon zest, togarashi spice and a blizzard of fresh-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“The server instructs you to mix it all together,” Felice says.
Sounding a bit abashed, he adds, “I’m super grateful. It’s been nothing short of amazing to open our reservation book the first of every month and be completely sold out for the whole month by 10:30 in the morning. That’s something chefs dream of, and l feel very lucky at 32 to have opened a concept that is not well known, is original and different, and I’m really grateful that everyone loves it and enjoys it. People have been back five or six times already, and I don’t know how they got in.”