The menu offers only four appetizers and no more than a dozen entrees on any given night, all benefiting from a sure hand with seasonings. Even a dish as basic as mozzarella and tomato salad ($5.95) - alternating slices of cheese and tomato - was made extra-special by a lovely balsamic vinegar-olive oil dressing sweetened with honey and Dijon mustard, the flavors heightened by a liberal sprinkling of fresh dill.
Individual Caesar salad (also $5.95) was a mountain of crisp romaine leaves and homemade croutons in a wonderfully rich, eggy dressing assertively flavored with garlic and anchovies and finished with grated romano. Heavy- textured wheat and pumpernickel-raisin rolls came with butter pats at room temperature.
Les crevettes Tomasello ($17.95) was a fancy name for a marvelous platter of jumbo shrimp and oyster mushrooms on angel hair pasta, sprinkled with a colorful medley of chopped tomatoes, green and yellow bell peppers and scallions and bathed in a lush cream and white wine sauce dusted with grated locatelli-romano cheese; the dish was garnished with a plump strawberry on a red kale leaf.
A flavorful, 12-ounce New York strip sirloin steak ($17.95), unfortunately tough and overgrilled, came with a dark Tomasello cabernet sauvignon sauce filled with fresh mushrooms and chopped scallions but so thick and gluey it was nearly inedible; it literally stuck to my fork. Roasted potatoes were nicely crisp, and sauteed zucchini half-moons and onions were laced with oregano.
Raspberry-chocolate truffle ($3.25), a chocoholic's dream dish, was of grainy chocolate mousse on chocolate cake, topped with fudge in a raspberry glaze. Rich carrot cake ($3) studded with chopped carrots and walnuts and topped with vanilla butter cream icing was the best I've had in a long time.
Although several tables are inside Carpenter's Square Mall, most are outside on a tree-flanked deck with garish yellow-pink railing that complements nearby buildings, most notably the famed Pink House on the corner.
Green-and-white beach umbrellas shade white molded-plastic tables and chairs. Smaller, umbrella-less tables are draped with pink cloths under panes of glass. Flatware is rolled in white cotton napkins, and bouquets of eucalyptus, dried wheat and purple plastic grapes sprout from sand-filled green bottles.
Perhaps appropriately for Cape May, a young man dressed as a banana pranced in front of the restaurant, passing out Carpenter's Mall leaflets. And that was before I hit the wine bar.
TOMASELLO WINE CELLAR & RESTAURANT
Carpenter's Square Mall, Carpenter's Lane, Cape May, 884-6662
Open: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5:30-10 p.m. seven days; Sunday champagne brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Price range: Appetizers average $6, entrees $17.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard.
Nonsmoking section: Patio dining.
Facilities for handicapped: Yes.
Atmosphere: Summer informality.