This Morristown eatery combines comfort food and creativity

This Morristown eatery combines comfort food and creativity

Leia Gaccione distinctly remembers her first conversation with Bobby Flay. She was 23 years old and had been working at Raymond’s in Montclair. Her boss, who had connections, sent her to work a few days at one of Flay’s restaurants in New York City.

Gaccione was cutting onions for mango salsa when the celebrity chef walked in. She remembers feeling like a deer caught in headlights, and didn’t realize she was talking aloud. “This is crazy,” she muttered, prompting Flay to ask her to clarify. “This is crazy that you’re here.” His response: “What did you expect? It’s my restaurant.”

Flay used an expletive for emphasis, but the sentiment needed no emphasis for Gaccione. If you want your restaurant to succeed, you have to be present.

Gaccione, who ended up working several years as chef de cuisine for Flay, opened South + Pine in Morristown last year. In conversation, she’s breezy, fun and upbeat, and her restaurant clearly reflects her personality. It’s a small, casual BYOB next to the Mayo Performing Arts Center, with dining outside on the patio as weather permits.

The menu is full of food you know — lamb meatballs, hanger steak and fried chicken are customer favorites. But Gaccione’s promise is to elevate each dish, every step of the way. The meatballs, for example, are spiced with harissa, then complemented (and cooled) by a cucumber relish.

The decor is rustic, which is offset by pretty chandeliers. Gaccione wanted a restaurant appropriate for a date, for children, for grandmothers. “I really want people to feel as though they are coming over to my house for dinner.”

Scallops ($32) are especially fat and succulent. Gaccione begins with superior fresh, dry, bay scallops, which are simply pan-seared. This dish feels decadent. Grilled flatbreads ($13) are unexpectedly light, with toppings that change with the seasons (expect peach jam, duck confit and arugula in the fall). Her hanger steak ($24) is lively, with welcome oomph.

Desserts ($10) are also foods you know, with a little Gaccione twist, including a cheesecake made with crème fraîche and a chocolate caramel pudding, accompanied by pretzel brittle.

Gaccione is young, but already has 16 years in the business and still seems surprised she has her own place. “It blows my mind this has happened.”

But anyone who listens to a few of her stories isn’t surprised at all.

She grew up in Passaic and intended to study psychology at Montclair State University. But her boyfriend broke up with her — over the phone — at the same time Montclair State lost her application. Upset, she complained to her boss: “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life.”

He asked her what she loved. When she shared her longtime enthusiasm for the kitchen, her love of Julia Child episodes and “Yan Can Cook,” he offered to take her on a tour of a culinary school. She never looked back.

Then, there is the story of her first real kitchen job. How, at age 18, she applied for work at the now-defunct Liberte in Montclair, dressed in a pinstripe suit and pumps. How her heels kept getting caught in the rubber kitchen mat and how chef Frank Baert asked her if she knew gastrique.

She had absolutely no idea. And how later, when Baert offered her a position, she said yes — with this announcement: “I know what gastrique is.”

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Published at Wed, 09 Nov 2016 13:00:00 +0000