By Suzanne Parker
For all you fans of competitive cooking shows in general, or the Food Network’s “Chopped” in particular, you can sample the talents of a bona fide winner. Jason Zukas, a Ridgewood guy who referred to himself as the “Rocky Balboa of cooking” on the show, knocked out some pretty stiff competition to win the $10,000 prize on “Chopped.” He will be competing on the show again in the fall.
After earning his cooking chops in restaurants both abroad and in New York City, he has finally opened his own place. It is in the hinterlands of Glendale on the corner of a residential block across the street from a massive self-storage facility. This space was the original home of La Tavernetta, which in its heyday drew a devoted clientele from allover, proving it’s not always “location, location, location.”
Mr. Zukas has, to his credit, transformed the petite interior from dumpy to upscale. Dark wooden moldings, a wooden bar replacing an ugly glass cabinet, an earth-tone color scheme, subtle lighting and ta-dah: class! The sound system cranks out hits from Baby Boomers’ glory days.
The food here is billed as Nuevo Italian-American cuisine, although the menu occasionally ventures into French territory, as with the nice, earthy tapenade provided on arrival.
We began with a piquant arugula salad with rosemary-scented cannellini beans, fire-roasted red peppers and a crown of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. From that we moved on to truffled gnocchi. The gnocchi were surrounded by butternut squash, sautéed cremini mushrooms, prosciutto and peas. The combination of flavors melded marvelously, but the texture of the gnocchi fell short. They lacked the requisite resiliency, bordering on mushy.
Cavatelli were served with slow-cooked pork ragout, fried rosemary and a dollop of creamy house ricotta in the center. The seasonings were subtle to the point of blandness, and the use of salt circumspect. The cavatelli themselves were on the stodgy side.
Braised short ribs, however, were a triumph and the highlight of the meal. The succulent meat rested on a heavenly base of creamy but slightly granular pecorino-laced polenta. It was topped with smoked onions and crisp, smoky grilled asparagus. Here Zukas shined.
We completed our meal with a luscious little individual apricot Italian cheesecake — not overly rich, but very satisfying.
The Bottom Line
Tazzina, like its chef/owner, is an up-and-comer. The service is attentive, with Zukas’ mom watching the front of the house. The prices are fair. This restaurant has only been around a couple of months and is just hitting its stride. Go now, before it is “discovered.”
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
75-01 88th St.
Glendale, NY 111385
Price Range: Apps $8-$14, mains $14-$28
Cuisine: Nuevo Italian-American
Setting: Petite but smart
Service: Attentive, professional.
Hours: Dinner only Tuesday-Sunday
Alcohol: License pending
Credit Cards: Yes
Noise Level: Small space, noisy when busy
Handicap Accessible: Tight quarters