You’d never guess from the outside, but step through the door of the low brick building set amid a cluster of businesses and chain hotels in a commercial part of Newburgh, and it’s like passing through a portal to Tuscany. Il Cenácolo has long been considered the best Italian restaurant in the Hudson Valley, and part of its charm is the lovely, atmospheric setting.
Sali Hadzi, the perfectionist owner, is from Montenegro, but he worked in Italian restaurants for many years, apparently absorbing whatever is quintessential about them. Then, when he opened Il Cenácolo in 1988, he duplicated it in gritty Newburgh.
Although the building is nondescript on the outside, Sali transformed the interior into a rural ristorante. He had the walls plastered and tinted a soft Tuscan gold; brought in hundred-year-old beams for the ceiling and hung copper pots from them; added rustic shutters at the windows to block the sights and sounds outside. Just inside the door, he stationed a table laden with antipasti and desserts that will get your mouth watering before you’re even seated. Light Italian opera drifts through the room on a current of appetizing aromas.
The restaurant’s main dining room has a Tuscan feel
“Everyone that comes in says it feels like Italy,” says Rita Crowder, who helps run the front of the house. “They love the smell of the food — it’s very rustic, braised for hours, with lots of flavor; the kind of cuisine people don’t prepare at home. Some people say the food is better than what they’ve had in Italy.”
The mostly Northern Italian cuisine is on the pricey side, but exceptional enough to rate an impressive 28 in Zagat. Favorites are classic dishes like osso buco, double-thick veal chops stuffed with proscuitto, and venison medallions in brandy-peppercorn cream sauce. But regulars usually don’t even look at the menu, Crowder says. They know the servers will be reciting a long list of specials. Add a first-class wine list and an unhurried pace, and the illusion that you’ve somehow been beamed to Italy is complete.