The Pivot: How Chef Robbie Felice Is Shifting Gears During the Pandemic
About a month before coronavirus upended the entire American restaurant industry, Robbie Felice was at the highest point in his cooking career.
The 29-year-old chef-owner of Viaggio in Wayne, New Jersey, had opened his second restaurant, a dry-aged Italian chophouse called Osteria Crescendo in Bergen County, last April. Both establishments were ranked in New Jersey Monthly magazine’s 30 Best Restaurants list, a respected barometer of quality for the state. Felice got asked to represent the region in the Barilla Pasta World Championship, and the James Beard Foundation named him a semifinalist for their 2020 Rising Star award for chefs under 30.
“Here I was, some little nobody out here in Jersey, and it was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m killing it this year—nothing can stop me now,’” Felice says. “I was on top of the world, then this whole tragedy struck.” He says it feels like a bad dream. “Every morning I wake up, and for three or four seconds I think about how I have to go to the restaurants.”
The Pivot: After closing Viaggio and Osteria Crescendo for dine-in service on March 15, Felice was staring down walk-ins full of product. “I couldn’t let it all go to waste,” he says, and followed the lead of chefs in Los Angeles whom he saw converting their restaurants into markets.
“At the time, people were afraid to go to grocery stores, so I thought maybe they would be more comfortable coming to Viaggio, where there could be six people instead of 200. I was there literally at the ass crack of dawn putting out produce, setting up a charcuterie bar and dry-aged steak counter. It was a really positive experience. It was great to have some money coming in, but I was also able to keep three employees on, and it helped me and my dad, who’s my business partner, in good spirits.”
Felice ran the market at Viaggio for two weeks, then flipped the restaurant into a pick-up operation with a limited menu of Italian dishes, plus a roster of five sandwiches including a porchetta panino, fried chicken and burger fortified with scraps of dry-aged beef from Crescendo’s steaks.
“That whole first weekend was a blur. It was like turned into a Burger King with 100 ticket in front of us,” he says. “I was happy for how busy we were, but it’s also like, what’s the next thing? That was so last week. [The challenge] is staying relevant: What are you doing now that’s going to get people to drive to you to pick up food curb-side? We’re been trying to come up with new ideas, and man, it’s difficult.”
Being able to drop off eight trays of baked ziti to a hospital that’s bulging at the seams, that feels pretty good.
The Future: “I have not a clue what’s going to happen after this,” Felice says. “I think about it every day: Will I need to close? Will the food scene ever be the same?”
This week, he found out through an industry friend that one of his favorite restaurants in New York, a place that is super acclaimed and busy, wasn’t going to reopen. “I was fucking shell-shocked.”
For now, Felice is continuing to hatch new ideas for Viaggio and coordinating with area supermarkets to donate food he and his chef friends can turn into meals for hospital workers. “Being able to drop off eight trays of baked ziti to a hospital that’s bulging at the seams, that feels pretty good.”
Robbie Felice’s Porcini-Brown Sugar Steak Rub
- 8 ounces dried porcini
- 1 tablespoon juniper berries
- 1 tablespoon red chile flake
- 6 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon Espelette pepper
- 1½ pounds dark brown sugar
- 5 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (2½ tablespoons Morton’s)
- Heat the oven to 350F and toast porcini on a sheet pan until slightly darker brown in color, about 10 minutes. Cool.
- Combine the porcini with the juniper, chile flake, and black and Espelette peppers in a spice grinder or high-powered blender and grind into a fine powder.
- Transfer to a bowl and stir in the sugar and salt by hand.
- Generously rub the mixture onto steak of choice—Felice recommends a tomahawk rib-eye—and add additional salt and black pepper to taste before grilling.