South + Pine American Eatery opened in Morristown on May 25 by chef/owner Leia Gaccione. A Bobby Flay protégé, Gaccione has set out on her own with a successful effort of dishes that balance the familiar and innovative.
When Gaccione was younger, while other kids were outside playing in her hometown of Passaic, she was inside watching “Yan Can Cook” and Julia Child. “I remember being fascinated by the way Yan chopped with a cleaver,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be able to chop like that.” Her career as a chef was forged in an accident. She had applied to Montclair State College as a psychology major; however, they lost her application.
At the time, Gaccione was working in a bookstore and explained the situation to her boss. He asked what she was passionate about. “I really love to cook,” was her reply. Within a month, she was registered at the New York Restaurant School for their restaurant management and culinary arts program. Gaccione said, “I believe that everything happens for a reason.”
After graduating, she worked as an intern at the Brass Rail in Hoboken. Gaccione made the rounds at other restaurants at the beginning of her culinary career including Liberte, Cuban Pete’s and Raymond’s of Montclair. She then spent seven years as the Executive Chef & Chef de Cuisine for Bobby Flay at five of his restaurants, including Mesa Grill in Las Vegas and New York, Bar Americain in New York and Connecticut, and Gato in New York. “Working with Bobby Flay was a fantastic experience,” said Gaccione. “I kept learning from each one of Bobby’s restaurants.”
Gaccione is also a three-time Iron Chef competitor. “I feel like I lost five years of my life with each episode,” Gaccione jokes while discussing the high stress of the TV series in which chefs compete against Iron Chefs in a timed cooking battle using a secret ingredient.
South + Pine is Gaccione’s first venture on her own. “You don’t know if you can fly until you jump off the ledge,” said Gaccione. During the planning stages, she saved her ideas using Pinterest and in the notes section of her phone. “If I woke up in the middle of the night, I would jot down ideas on the phone. When I got up in the morning I would see the entries and think, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.'”
“My goal was to create a place I would want to go myself,” said Gaccione. “I want to serve food that is casual and familiar yet refined.” Located right on South Street next to the MPAC (Mayo Performing Arts Center), one of the highlights of the space is the outdoor patio. BYOB is encouraged. Bring your own bottle of wine and the attentive staff will turn it into seasonal sangria. Or order some Mint Ginger Iced Tea ($4) or Cucumber Mint Cooler ($4).
Indoors, the décor is eclectic-fun where chandeliers contrast with distressed doors on the wall. Local artist Mike Monochello, who specializes in chalk murals, created a chalk art piece for the space.
While the atmosphere is inviting, it is the dishes that will make this a regular stop on your restaurant list. South + Pine’s take on the traditional Caprese salad is burrata ($12), a fresh mozzarella that is mixed with cream, served with fried green tomatoes and a hot cherry pepper vinaigrette. “This dish is well balanced. The acid in the tomato, the seasonings and the creaminess of the burrata played off each other,” said Ray Chandonnet of Summit. “This is something you would get in New York City.”
Spicy Lamb meatballs ($13) are paired with Greek yogurt sauce and cucumber to cool down the spice. A customer favorite is the Crispy Squash Blossom ($12) filled with ricotta along with a spring green pesto.
Entrees include Fried Chix ($18) with sweet potato waffle and a spicy Harissa honey. The sweet waffle mixes well with the spicy honey and the crunch of the chicken. The Beef Burger ($15), served on a toasted buttered English muffin with house-smoked cheddar and bacon aioli, is one of Chef Gaccione’s favorite meals. “I could eat one every day,” she said.
If you are looking for seafood, entrees include Salmon ($20) served on top of coconut quinoa with beet and carrot salad or Bronzino ($26) with smoked corn relish and tomato vinaigrette. “Exceptional. Over-the-top. Hedonistic,” said Jerry Colaluca of Morris Township to describe the Swordfish Club ($16), which is served with lemon aioli and avocado.
Dessert recipes come from Clarisa Martino, who was voted Top 10 Best Pastry Chef in America by Dessert Professional. Try a Blueberry Hand Pie ($10) with whipped cream cheese and Chocolate Stout Pudding ($10) with malt whipped cream and pretzel brittle.
The restaurant has an open kitchen, so you can see your food being made. Steve Bauer, general manager said, “Each dish is prepared with love.
South + Pine American Eatery
Address: 90 South St., Morristown
Hours: Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner: Mon-Thur 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun 5-9 p.m.; brunch: Sat & Sun 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $9-$13; entrees $12-$17; brunch, starters: $9-12; main dishes $12-$17; dinner appetizers $9-$13; entrees $18-$28; desserts $10.
Credit cards: Visa/Mastercard/Discover/Amex
Parking: Metered street parking and neighborhood lots
Seating: 70 inside; 60 outside