(First published on Baristanet 11.11.11)

First cousins Dardan Mati, Ben Husenaj and Naz Husenaj were singing a familiar business reprise when they opened Acappello on Bloomfield Ave a month ago. The restaurant, named with a nod to the Wellmont Theater next door, is their fifth restaurant in New Jersey, following Cara Mia in Millburn, La Campagna in Morristown, La Catena in Bridgewater and La Catena 22 in Roselle Park.

Formerly home of the Chinese restaurant Sesame, Acappello’s space has undergone an ambitious renovation since the former’s exit, including the addition of one key element that will encourage at least me to visit repeatedly – large, capacious windows. The bare brick, wood-floored restaurant is deliciously bathed in light, whichever room you sit in (and don’t forget to check out the cosy mezzanine level, tinged in sunshiny hues reflected off the bright yellow awning).

While Montclair and its neighboring towns suffer no shortage of Italian restaurants (Fascino, Palazzo, Gencarelli’s, Osteria Giotto, Leone’s – to name just a few in the vicinity), the place impressed rather quickly, getting top marks for friendly and speedy service and, soon after, for food made with heart.

We’d barely sat a few minutes before the bread basket and a mini starter plate appeared – with tasty bruschetta toasts, chunks of parmesan and slender slices of fried zucchini. The latter isn’t for the diet bent; stopping at one is simply not possible.

I picked the day’s salad special – of arugula with shaved fennel, juliennes of apple, onion, cubes of gorgonzola and toasted almonds, dressed in a hazelnut sauce (see main photo). This was cool, crunchy and sweet, set off beautifully by the sharp blue cheese.

See more photos of the restaurant here.

My companion, armed with an enormous appetite, easily polished off the day’s special pasta – spaghetti with tender (and gigantic) veal meatballs in a rich and flavorsome tomato sauce.

Ravioli porcini were generous and stuffed chockful of shiitake and cremini, and doused in an aromatic truffle cream sauce. Venture forth only after loosening your belt a couple of notches. This dish was exquisite, full of dense, mushroom flavor and moreish butteriness.

The meal was polished off with strawberries and amaretto-studded zabaglione – rich and ambrosial with almonds. Consume before intimate family only (for your reactions will make anyone else blush).

What else to try? Dardan Mati recommends the grilled salmon, a house specialty that’s stuffed with zucchini, roasted peppers and eggplant, then topped with fried leek and drizzled with a light balsamic sauce. He also suggests the fetuccine cara mia, with jumbo lump crab meat, shrimp, roast peppers, chilli flakes, white wine and cream.

Acapello’s appetizers range from $6.95 to $11.95 for a choice of nine of them, ranging from eggplant rollatini to cold antipasti. There are five salads, from warm spinach with bacon and wild mushroom, pear salad with walnuts and gorgonzola in hazelnut dressing to arugula with beet and goat cheese. Soup choices, at $5.95, are fagiole, minestrone, and escarole and bean.

Patrons stopping for lunch can have their pick of six panini, priced between $8.95 and $13.95, including the filet mignon with gorgonzola, chicken pesto, grilled vegetables, and prosciutto and mozzarella.

The pastas, made in house except for the wholegrain ones, are between $12.95 and $17.95. Choose from linguine vongole, capellini fruitti de mare, fettucine cara mia (a special from Cara Mia in Millburn), wholewheat penne primavera, penne rustic and ravioli porcini.

Among the seven entrees, priced between $16.95 and $21.95 are grilled shrimp della case, shrimp arabiatta, branzino with asparagus, zucchini and mushroom, veal toscano, and chicken scarpiello with hot cherry peppers, mushroom and herbs.

You’ll be spoiled for choice with the desserts; there are 15 of them, priced between $8 and $9 and including tiramisu, Napoleon cake, tartufo, cannoli, strawberries with zabaglione (see above) and chocolate chip cookie cake.

Acapello Ristorante

398 Bloomfield Ave

Montclair, NJ 07042

973 746 2553