Rated "3 Stars" by The Bergen Record

Il Mulino Ristorante's

Recipe for Success Is All in the Details


Special to Northern Vallen

Jimmy Lulani arrived in America with little more than a dream. Still in his teens, Lulani's command of English was limited, but drive and determination were undeniable. Quickly landing a job at Brussels, the prestigious Manhattan French eatery, he never strayed from his original goal - to own a restaurant.

That dream materialized in Englewood Cliffs' Café Italiano. Lulani was only 28 at the time. "I grew up in Rome. Both my mother and grandmother were fantastic cooks, so I guess cooking has always been in my blood," he said. Describing Café Italiano as "a gold mine," Lulani soon grew itchy and decided to expand 10 years ago.

Lulani came across a new build ing on Veterans Plaza in Dumont and christened it Il Mulino Ristorante. That was 10 years ago.

"From the first day, it was an instant success," he claimed. A stickler for detail and perfection, Lulani refused to compromise and eventually sold Café Italiano to devote his entire attention to the new enterprise.

Comments published in Zagat's Restaurant Guide mirror the sentiments of regulars who praise Jimmy's multi-task abilities. Stated : in the simplest terms it reads, "He cares. He cooks. He loves you." Il Mulino is often found in the Top 5 Record Readers' Survey.

Pinpointing what sets Il Mulino apart, Lulani said, "Our uniqueness is in delicious food, inventing new specials, keeping our prices afftordable, and providing a one-of-a-kind atmosphere."

This combination has enabled Il Mulino to remain "recession-proof." He elaborated, "I don't believe that the recession can gain a stronghold in a place where you care about your customers and offer them quality products at reasonable prices." To assist the budget-minded patron, Il Mulino offers specially priced Sunset dining every Monday through Thursday between 4 and 6 p.m.

While the regular menu lists items that are the backbone of most fine Italian dining establishments, it's the daily specials that leave patrons awestruck "Everyday, we have a choice of 15 different appetizers, and at least 20 main courses," said Lulani, who keeps a steady hand on every phase of the operation from ordering the pro visions, to conceiving new dishes, following through with the little surprise touches like de-boning Dover Sole at the patron's table.

"I got involved in this business when I was very young and after 35 years, I believe that I have mastered the profession. Yet even today I feel I am still learning more in order to keep abreast with the changing tastes of my customers. What keeps this really fresh and fun is getting to know people from different cultural backgrounds," Lulani said.

Open daily for lunch and dinner, it quickly becomes apparent that Lulani thrives on the adrenaline-paced routine. "The greatest satis&ction I receive is knowing that a customer is happy. To receive a compliment about what an excellent meal they enjoyed keeps me dedicated," he added.

Capitalizing on the flavors of the season, Lulani will soon switch over to lighter fire. "Throughout the winter months we serve hearti er items like venison and polenta. Come the spring and summer, these will be replaced by several cold soups and cold salmon, and more locally grown produce such as the Jersey tomato," he explained.

Singling out some of Il Mulino's signature dishes, the roster would have to lead off with stuffed whole artichoke with grated cheese and olive oil sauce. "Nobody makes them better, Lulani con fidently bragged.

Another flworite standby is charcoal-grilled calamari over a bed of mesclun salad, finished with light balsainic vinaigrette, along with the exotic mango salad with goat cheese and raspberry dressing over mesclun.

Proceeding to the main course, there's the guaranteed palate-pleasing osso bucco (veal or lamb shank) with a choice of three-mushroom risotto or feather-light homemade gnocchi.

A prime example of the changing tastes that Lulani referred to is the replacement of veal entrees by fish and seafood. Generating uniform rave reviews is the Bronzio or Mediterranean bass lightly marinated with virgin olive oil and fresh herbs sautéed with garlic, and handsomely presented atop a bed of baby spinach.

To top off the meal, there's a dessert cart laden down with tempting delights including flan and ricotta cheesecake. Making the dining experience more aesthetically appealing, the 120-seat restaurant was recently renovated.

Rated "3 Stars" by The Bergen Record

When I called for a 7 o'clock reservation on a Friday night, the person who answered the phone replied, "no problem." A beat later he added, "but could you come a little earlier?" Surprised, I asked if he did, in fact, have a table available, "Absolutely," he replied "but if you are late all of the good ones will be gone."

He was not kidding.

We arrived at 6:55 and were seated promptly at a lovely table with an excellent view of the dining room. As we sat we watched with astonishment at how quickly the room filled. Even more surprising was that would-be diners were standing 10 deep by the door waiting for tables.

The pale-blue-hued dining room, though filled to capacity, had an open, airy feel. With more than adequate space between the tables we had a sense of privacy that one would not expect on a busy Friday night. The friendly and conscientious waiters, dressed in green aprons and vests patterned with food, wine, and cigars, moved easily between the tables taking orders, refilling water glasses, and answering requests with quiet efficiency. Their biggest challenge lay in maneuvering the oversized dessert-filled Viennese cart to waiting patrons.

While we discussed the long and tempting list of specials and the menu, we enjoyed a plate of tomato-topped bruschetta expecting to be rushed at any second. But our waiter noticed our conversation and gave us the time we needed.

An appetizer special of grilled calamari ($7.95) was a generous portion of three whole calamari, slightly charred in spots, and served over a mixed baby lettuce salad with a nicely acidic balsamic vinaigrette. The sharpness of the dressing helped to bring out the delicate flavor of the calamari.

Another excellent starter was the carpaccio di manzo ($7.95). Thinly pounded slices of beef fillet were draped over peppery arugula leaves then topped with salty capers and shaved, aged Parmesan cheese. You could stop right there and be satisfied but a healthy drizzle of truffle-infused olive oil made this dish sublime.

A salad of string beans, shaved fennel, red onions, and Parmesan - insalata arcobaleno ($5.95) - was as fantastic as it was simple. Lightly dressed with a slightly sweet dressing, the flavors melded perfectly.

We were disappointed with the insalata alla Cesare for two ($9.95). Instead of one salad tossed with the same dressing and split into two servings, this one seemed to have two different vinaigrettes on it. My companion's portion was light and lemony with a nice bite from the black pepper. Mine was bizarrely heavy on the anchovy, so much so that it overwhelmed all of the other flavors.

For the most part the food was very good but there were some small problems. A veal osso buco special ($18.95), complete with a marrow fork, was served lightly bathed with a robust tomato sauce and pillow-like homemade gnocchi. But the veal was uncharacteristically tough and chewy, which obscured whatever flavor the meat had.

Linguine alla lido ($16.95), one of Il Mulino's most popular dishes, was almost perfect. Delicate shrimp, calamari rings, mussels, clams, and a sweet lobster tail were gently tossed with a lemony white wine and butter sauce. The problem was the dry, gray, and slightly fishy-tasting piece of mahi-mahi that had somehow found its way into the dish.

A pleasant surprise was the flawless pollo alla bella vista ($14.95). Moist sliced chicken, plump shrimp, and melt-in-the-mouth scallops were sauteed with shallots, hearts of palm, and mushrooms in a delicate wine sauce, punctuated with briny capers. Another delight was a side dish of sauteed escarole. The greens were cooked with heady crisped garlic slices and excellent olive oil. A glass of red wine and a hunk of bread would have transformed this side dish into a perfect peasant-style dinner.

Desserts, if one has room, run from simple, like the homemade pastry cream-filled napoleon ($4.50) to the more complex, such as raspberry frangipani tart ($4). The tart was cloyingly sweet. An excessively thick layer of the intensely flavored almond paste hid the fruitiness of the raspberries and the crunch of the crust.

A favorite dessert was the light, creamy, and slightly tart raspberry swirl cheesecake ($4). A nice finishing touch was the complimentary plate of cut fresh fruit."