Pasta shells and more at Shore

Posted: July 13, 2008

Frank Sinatra, may he rest in peace, must be the patron saint of spaghetti.

It's the only way to explain why every red-gravy joint on the East Coast has a shrine to the man, from the portraits of a fedora-topped young Frank to the endlessly looped soundtrack of his crooner hits that are as ubiquitous as little shakers of grated parmesan cheese.

The Sinatra schtick gets personal, though, when it comes to Patsy's, the 64-year-old Manhattan landmark that was Sinatra's favorite Italian restaurant. Sal Scognamillo, Patsy's third-generation owner, got permission from the Sinatra family to use that claim, and boy, Ol' Blue Eyes, has he indulged. It was a marketing boon for the restaurant's cookbook and jarred supermarket sauces. And the tout has recently been blaring from local billboards to promote the opening of Patsy's first offshoot, in the Atlantic City Hilton casino.

Considering that this Hilton used to be the Golden Nugget, where Sinatra was a regular, the marriage would seem ideal. But the elderly lady waiting in line at the new Patsy's wasn't buying it.

"I'm not going to eat here just because Frank did," she grumbled. "I liked the old place here, Caruso's."

Indeed, Caruso's had a good run for nearly two decades. But it wasn't the kind of name-brand eatery that marks the new generation of casino restaurant, said A.C. Hilton president Tony Rodio. A legend like Patsy's, he said, can draw the coveted New York-North Jersey crowd.

But is Patsy's their best bet for serious pasta at the beach? After all, you can have a "Big Night" meal virtually every night down the Shore, where there are literally hundreds of Italian restaurants serving every shade of tomato gravy. That includes two other notable newcomers on Long Beach Island and in Ventnor. And there are formidable oldies to consider, too, including a 12-table (almost) secret cellar in Atlantic City, and an aging roadhouse on the Black Horse Pike that boldly claims to serve the "World's Best Spaghetti."

Is that even possible? I had to know.

Patsy's

In the spectrum of name brands that have corrupted the tradition of Italian American cooking, Patsy's is thankfully still a long way away from the fakery of Olive Garden or Buca di Beppo.

True, the Atlantic City branch reheats bulk sauces from the plant that bottles its supermarket products. But someone was clearly in the kitchen really finishing the job - on our night, the ebullient Sal Scognamillo himself. And frankly, the sauces were pretty good.

Chunky tomatoes bolstered with wine, clam juice and herbs cloaked the huge butterflied shrimp marinara. Fresh veal stock deepened the anchovy-tinged broth beneath the deep-fried cubes of layered bread and mozzarella called spiedino alla Romana. Tenderly broiled littleneck clams arreganata were topped with a garlicky crust of oregano and bread crumbs. Notably tender veal meatballs soaked in a zesty Neapolitan pizzaiola.

We popped in just a week after Patsy's opening. And there were still some problems to address. The fried zucchini were limp. The chicken parm was chewy. The ravioli were crunchy on the edges. And my $40 veal chop Sicilian was overcooked and buried in garlic.

This wasn't bad food, per se. But I've had these dishes a hundred times, better prepared and considerably cheaper. And outside the context of their original address, they are a stark reminder that restaurants like Patsy's are famous not because the food is distinctive, but because their spaces exude a patina of history. The people and place itself are the secret seasoning.

Stripped of that character in the Hilton, Patsy's new casino version feels sterile. The space has a swanky entryway bar, but the big, open dining room feels like a hotel banquet room dressed up in framed copies of a hundred old celebrity photos. Perhaps it's just a matter of time before the image of jolly Sal Scognamillo bounding through this carpeted casino room is as natural as if he were hustling across the 56th Street terrazzo.

But so far, the only reassuring note is that voice, on endless loop, crooning through the air.

Red Room Cafe

If there's one new Italian restaurant near Atlantic City already worth visiting this summer, it would be the hopping new Red Room Cafe in Ventnor owned by Robert Conti. Set near the Dorset Avenue bridge, Conti's corner space bustles with a vibrant, local crowd. The warm red decor is sophisticated, without being stuffy, and deliberately avoids the Sinatra kitsch.

"No Sinatra here," insists Conti. "We want to be different."

Instead, Conti's stable of racehorses get full exposure, including "Bobby Blue Eyes," who won at Churchill Downs this spring, and my sentimental favorite, "Spice E. Meatball," photographed in full gallop last summer at Philadelphia Park.

It is the zesty cooking from chef Nicola Domenico, though, that really makes the Red Room click. Domenico, who cooked for years with Joseph Tucker at Tucker's, has mastered both the South Philly canon and some more authentic Italian moves.

His clams casino are among the best I've had, the light chopped-clam filling tingling with peppers and Tabasco spice. His fresh calamari are delicate and crispy. And his veal Amore is a satisfying breaded cutlet topped with house-made mozzarella, greens and tomatoes. That mozzarella is one of the best features on brick-oven pizzas like the margherita. But there are other intriguing variations, like peppery broccoli rabe and sausage, or "white" with Taleggio, oregano and olive oil.

But my favorite dish was the "mare & mondo," an Abruzzese spaghetti with littleneck clams and cubed zucchini in a white-wine broth. The combination was deceptively plain, but the simple addition of fresh bay leaves lent the broth a vivid herbal edge that, days later, I could still taste.

Chef Vola's

For a taste of Italian American history that remains unmistakably genuine, travel a few blocks from the Hilton to Chef Vola's. Of course, finding it is no easy task, as this 87-year-old institution resides in the basement of an unmarked Victorian house on a tiny side street. But even if you do, getting one of its 12 tables during high season is next to impossible. (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are already booked for the summer.)

With such demand, it's no wonder people put up with a reservation ritual that feels like cracking a secret code. The phone number is unlisted (though widely available online). And if you're not a regular, you'll be asked: "Who do you know?"

I name-dropped some acquaintances for a late-night Tuesday table (thanks, Bruce and Andy!). I bought my bottles (it's BYO). I brought loads of cash. (Credit cards? Are you kidding?) And I prepared to be disappointed. How could any place live up to such hype?

Well, I'd do it again.

Owners Michael and Louise Esposito, who bought Chef Vola's in 1982, inherited the mystique from the longtime previous owner and were reluctant to change what works. Newcomers are welcome if there's space, Louise insists, but the reference filter helps reduce no-shows in a town where gamblers can become forgetful.

I can't imagine the lucky streak that would keep me from a platter of Michael Sr.'s addictive veal sausage, with fennel-flecked links nestled beneath peppers and mushrooms. And then there is possibly the world's biggest crab cake, a colossal dome of sweet crustacean so fluffy it's almost a soufflé.

There were a couple of disappointments from the long list of specials, like the unwieldy kitchen-sink cacciatore called chicken scarpinata and the overcooked chicken arrabiata.

But mostly, this kitchen served memorable renditions of the classics, from the amazingly tender mince of surf clams in garlicky white sauce atop angel hair, to one of the finest veal Milaneses I've eaten, a tender rib chop pounded flat and crisped beneath fresh salad. The two-inch-thick flounder Francaise topped with fistfuls of lump crab was like eating a crispy cloud of fresh fluke.

And then, of course, there are the 21 desserts Louise bakes herself, from various cheesecakes to the ice-box banana cream pie. As I slowly savored the fluffy coconut cheesecake crusted with pecans and walnuts, I looked up to the wall behind me to see a signed portrait of the Chairman himself. It read: "To Louise, I love you. Uncle Frank."

Now that's an endorsement for Chef Vola's that I can second.

Pinziminio Trattoria

The grandest new dining room down the Shore can be found in Brighton Beach, where Pinziminio's prow-shaped building presides over a sunset view like a ship moored on Long Beach Boulevard.

This was a gourmet market by the same name until February, when co-owner Karen Spinelli and her fiance-partner, Jim DeGilio, converted it into a restaurant. But it's essentially a third try for Pinziminio as a restaurant, as Spinelli had previous trattoria locations in Beach Haven and Cherry Hill before returning to L.B.I. to start the market.

The store was popular in season, Spinelli said, but she's hoping the restaurant will become a year-round success. And this new dining room was certainly created to impress, with a curved mahogany staircase that leads up to a room with soaring ceilings and a chocolate-brown decor that has a certain urban chic.

Both Spinelli and DeGilio, a former owner of the Zagara's markets, were trained at the Culinary Institute of America. But their kitchen's upscale takes on Italian cooking indulge combinations that sometimes seem overwrought.

The house Pinziminio sauce, for example, is a smush of a puttanesca and a caponata (minus the eggplant) that on its own seems convoluted. As an all-purpose sauce for chicken, fish or pasta, though, its piquant, spicy, salty and sweet currant notes keep things interesting enough. A simple pesto, likewise, gets distractingly complicated with the addition of spicy cherry peppers. But as a crust for fish, it was an effective mute to the soapy flavor of the striped bass that sat in (unannounced) for the usual black bass, and which, at $32, was overpriced.

When Pinziminio played it simpler, the results were more satisfying. Classic beef carpaccio brought rare slices of sheer tenderloin beneath lemony olive oil and peppery greens. The steamed littlenecks were memorably tender and briny. The meatballs were a toothsome blend of beef, veal and pork. There is also a catchy house-made rendition of that Pennsauken pizzeria standby - the panzarotti - a deep-fried calzone stuffed with prosciutto-flecked ricotta. My favorite savory item was the most pleasant dish of all, a flaky baked cod over polenta and a chunky tomato sauce tingling with spice.

The evening's highlight, though, were the ricotta zeppole for dessert. These crispy puffs of freshly fried dough coated my fingers with honey while I tried to eat them hot, and I polished them off just as the sun was setting over the bay.

Joe Italiano's Maplewood II

At the end of our stay at the Jersey Shore, I have a tendency to linger and take the slow road home. So this was not the first time I'd raised a curious eyebrow at this unassuming roadhouse on the Black Horse Pike with a sign out front claiming the "World's Best Spaghetti." It sounds like a dubious boast, considering that the Maplewood II, like the fraying Black Horse Pike itself, is a relic from a faded era.

By all appearances, it is essentially a bare-bones Italian diner, with a droopy drop ceiling, plastic grapevines, and a picture of Venice framed on its stenciled gray walls. It serves an unpretentious crowd - big boisterous families, biker couples, and, behind us, a trio of old men who settled in with a bottle of cheap Chianti.

But Joe Italiano's turned out to be full of pleasant surprises, beginning with the fact that the owner really is a guy named Joe Italiano, the 74-year-old son of Neapolitan parents who founded the original Maplewood Inn (that's No. I) in Hammonton in 1946. The Italian immigrants who settled in that agricultural town were "home-style cooking people," he said, "so when they came into my restaurant, I felt honored."

And Italiano has rewarded those patrons with a commitment to home cooking that is unheard of at this modest price point. The pastas and raviolis are still made in a cellar by Italiano's sister, Angelus Esposito, and are never precooked. Every beefy meatball is seared to order in a cast-iron frying pan before getting dunked in red gravy that simmers daily for at least five hours.

The most notable specialties, though, are the "natural juice" white seafood sauces that Joe Italiano was among the first to popularize in South Jersey. Unthickened, they have a deceptively watery look. But they are pure flavor, steeped from the seafood cooked for each individual dish. The popular "Joe's Special," for example, brews the essence of clams, mussels, crab and conch.

But I found the approach most impressive with the simplest combinations - like the plump shrimp and broccoli that cook together over garlicky wine and butter. And there was also the "Cousins," a generous pairing of picked lobster and crab created by Italiano's son, Tom (who helps runs the Maplewood II with sister Linda), and his cousin, also named Tom. At $24.95, it's one of the menu's most expensive items, but the portion is so huge I didn't think I'd finish. With some hot pepper flakes scattered on top, however, I couldn't stop eating until it was gone.

Was it the world's best spaghetti? Only Sinatra, I think, could say for sure. But there must be some reason I'm craving another trip down the Black Horse Pike right about now.


Italian flavors down the Shore

Chef Vola's

111 S. Albion Place, Atlantic City, 609-345-2022. You need to know a Vola regular to snag one of the 12 tables in this unmarked, 87-year-old cellar restaurant, but the huge crab cakes, house veal sausage, chops, and personal service are worth the effort.

Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, 6-10 p.m.

Entrees $12.95-$55.95

Cash only.

BYOB.

Patsy's

Atlantic City Hilton, Boston and the Boardwalk, 609-340-7585; www.hiltonac.com. The upscaled red-gravy cooking is adequate, but the new casino branch of this New York institution feels more like a gussied-up hotel banquet room than the character-filled institution that was "Sinatra's favorite restaurant."

Dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5:45-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Bar opens an hour earlier.

Entrees $20-$48.

Pinziminio Trattoria

8701 Long Beach Blvd., Brighton Beach, 609-492-8700. Karen Spinelli's gourmet market has been transformed into a soaring restaurant dining room, with updated Italian specialties featuring the piquant puttanesca-plus house sauce. It's comfortable but pricey.

Dinner nightly, 5-10 p.m.

Entrees $17-$32.

BYOB.

Joe Italiano's Maplewood II

6126 Black Horse Pike, Mays Landing, 609-625-1181. It doesn't get more old-time than this unpretentious Italian roadhouse, where fresh pasta comes with slow-cooked gravies, fried-to-order meatballs, and "white sauces" infused with seafood juices.

Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday- Friday, until 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1-11 p.m.

Dinner entrees $12.95-$29.95.

The Red Room Cafe

141 N. Dorset Ave., Ventnor, 609-822-1067. A former Tucker's chef delivers a menu of both authentic Italian and upscaled South Philly flavors, from great clams casino and heaping pastas to good brick-oven pizzas topped with homemade mozzarella.

Lunch Friday-

Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner nightly, 5-11 p.m.

Dinner entrees $14.95-

$24.95.

BYOB.

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