Monday, October 7, 2013

Feasting Flashbacks: Memorial Day Weekend – Piccola Italia (Ocean, NJ)

Jersey Shore, Memorial Day weekend = the North Pole at Christmas.

The celebration can’t be stopped. This year, I was lucky enough to get back home for the official opening of summer, and though I usually found myself lulled by the same idealized haunts of my youth (measuring which still fit the puzzle pieces I’d fixed in my nostalgic brain), this trip served up a new way to see the Garden State on a plate, at a little Italian joint tucked in a strip mall.

A four-star restaurant in a strip mall?!
Toto, I think we’re back in Jersey.

Piccola Italia gave me a geography-warp = like a time warp, but rather than time, it was the immediate, overall change of surroundings due to the common practices and elements from that particular region. The heavy, mahogany-like bar was an instant reminder of being back in Jerz like a stoked fire of dark paneling that was rarely lit in the light woods and gauzy fabrics of San Diego. Murals of the Tuscan terrain rose up from the side wall, set off by large squares of white flooring, and gave off the first impression of Old World, old and pop at its best.


Amuse bouche
Fried ricotta with fresh tomato sauce: Propped on a chunky bed of fresh tomato sauce, this circularly-shaped, yet sleeker cousin of the mozzarella stick could barely contain itself. A sheer shell of breading cupped the ricotta like slinky lingerie before bursting forth in one hot dollop of cream. In the amuse(ment) bouche park, this would be the roller coaster – unexpected, high impact and over too quickly.

DLT sandwich – duck confit/ butter lettuce/ grape tomatoes/ caramelized onions
No biggie - just a sandwich stuffed with duck confit and caramelized onions. Its bread: crisped in a pan, where it'd absorbed all the butter from the onions and duck fat from the confit, morphing into a Texas toast/grilled cheese “high-bread” that made me weak in the knees. Dotting their T’s with balsamic reduction, grape tomatoes were halved and scattered on the plate for a refreshing squirt of acid, leaving the velvety, softness of butter lettuce to wipe the palate clean.

Homemade pasta and shiitake mushrooms: I’m not exactly sure how I would categorize this type of pasta – wider than parpadelle, but thinner than a sheet of lasagna. The length of it collapsed upon itself like a freshly, folded piece of laundry with a malleability that spoke of its newly formed nature. Between the plump ribbons of fresh pasta, shiitake mushrooms and micro-greens sprouted from a soft drizzle of parmesan and delicate broth that made me feel like a tree nymph foraging off an enchanted woods’ floor. It was an edible landscape that truly transported me to a magical place.

Blue cheese encrusted filet mignon with mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach and onion rings: I’ve had peppercorn encrusted, pistachio encrusted, but never cheese encrusted. The cocoon of blue cheese ensured every bite had a bit of stank to the rosy center of the perfectly, pink beef and even in the cocoon stage, this dish had clearly blossomed into its full good they had to put a (onion) ring on it.

Potato wrapped tilapia with brown butter and fresh green beans: You say potato, I say "po-nado" = a potato tornado spun its tight funnel of long, hash brown-like strips around the tilapia’s fork tender filet. Pan fried and crisped into one tight package (snug as a fish in a spud), the brown butter still managed to work its way between the small gaps in the potato cage and onto the fish’s flesh, keeping it moist, while keeping it clever in this culinary mash-up of fish n’ chips.

Side bar
Any port in a storm? Nope, just the one in the green bottle:
We ended up moving to the bar for cappuccino and a snifter of Frangelico, when we were offered some port. I automatically cringed when I heard the word and recalled my last run-in with this punk, a Tawny port I’d tried when my friend insisted, “It tastes like Raisinets.”

First of all, I’m not that hot on Raisinets and secondly, it tasted like my mother’s basement. So when it was offered to me at Piccola, I shrank away before my eyes were drawn to a dusty, green bottle that looked like something Alice might find with the words, “Drink me” on it, pulled from beneath the bar. I became more intrigued when this emerald bottle produced a pale, orange liquid that looked like Glenda the Good Witch instead of the damning tar of Tawny. All the ports I’d had before were dark, brooding characters that overstayed their welcome on the palate, but this tasted of apricots and peaches, and everything good in the world. Libation education 101 = white port existed and was delicious.

Scenes from a mall
My first impression was my lasting impression – mom and pop at its best. Piccola's modest location downplayed the intensity of what was happening in Chef (and owner) Brian Gualtieri ’s kitchen - expert technique, homemade pastas, fresh ingredients, enthusiastic staff - there was a real sense of heart felt within these walls and on the plate. Piccola's modern play on Italian classics kept you guessing, while remaining Old World, old school…new favorite.

837 W Park Ave, Ocean Township, NJ 07712
Phone:(732) 493-3090