As tide of openings ebbs, Italian pearl stands out

Shore fare: Topneck clams at the M&M Steam Bar ...
Shore fare: Topneck clams at the M&M Steam Bar ...
Posted: July 11, 2010

Casino restaurants have supplied much of the fresh energy in years past to fuel the northern end of the Philly-centric Jersey Shore. But given the late and expensive openings in Atlantic City this season - including a pair with entrées prices hovering in the $40s - it seems Casino Land has turned back inward to its high rollers rather than courting summer beachgoers with dining mass appeal.

Consider it a lingering sign of the sluggish economy - one that's reflected in quieter-than-usual new-restaurant action from Long Beach Island to just south of Ocean City, where I spent many of my meals revisiting the region's classic tastes and spaces. One restaurant was bouncing back off a bankruptcy sale under a new name and owners. Another is replacing "nostalgia" with Asian fusion. One has cultivated a kooky cult for chicken wings. And yet another oldie still seems to have preserved the taste of a seaside '50s Italian roadhouse in the very best way.

Ironically, this season's most exciting new name is very much a refugee from A.C.'s go-go casino days – Luke Palladino, who seven years ago opened the Borgata's Italian restaurants, Specchio and Ombra. Burned out on glitz and craving a return to basics, Palladino couldn't have taken a more drastic detour than the space he now calls home, a self-named 30-seat BYO in an unassuming mainland strip mall in Northfield.

As career gambles go, this tiny-yet-mighty trattoria seems like a sure bet, with prime reservations already booked for weeks, as locals and Margate Shorebirds alike clamor for a taste of the handcrafted fare inspired by Palladino's years in Italy. From the moment we stepped into the unexpected space - a shoe-box atelier divided equally between the blond-wood dining room and the fluorescent-lit bustle of the kitchen, with only a pulled-back canvas curtain and an enormous butcher block laden with cheeses and salumi separating the two - we sensed the kind of electricity channeled by Philly's best BYOBs.

With many signature flavors from his Borgata days on display here, we found ourselves devouring every morsel. Grissini breadsticks, slathered in truffle butter and wrapped in tender sheets of prosciutto, landed on the table poking out of little iron trees like ham-draped branches. Pan-crisped wedges of salty caciocavallo cheese came splashed in sweet Sambuca scented with mint and toasted garlic. Crispy arancini balls oozed truffled cheese. Bruschetta "al maro" toasts came mounded with a silky green Ligurian puree of fava beans, pecorino, and mint. Hearty Tuscan bean soup, steeped with prosciutto and topped with beer-fried springs of rosemary, was pure rustic pleasure.

I was disappointed not to taste Palladino's sold-out whole fish acquapazza braised in wine, herbs, and Calabrese chile. But the mixed seafood grill - with a plump branzino fillet, sweet shrimp, and scallops dusted in a delicate crisp of oregano-scented bread crumbs - was a masterful consolation. So was the juicy brick-cooked chicken marinated "devil-style" in lemon and chiles. I loved gnawing on the lamb rib chops - but wished there'd been more balsamic-glazed meat to nibble off those long bones. The only serious flaw with our meal was a plate of gummy bucatini amatriciana that I knew would be a problem when I spied a cook in the open kitchen untangling the freshly made hollow pasta he'd carelessly crushed. It was a production goof Palladino vows has already been fixed. I can't wait to check back. Even with entrées in the high $20s, Luke Palladino is the place - more than any other Shore restaurant this summer - I'd like to return to again and again.

I wish I could say the same for nearby Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro, the latest incarnation of the Somers Point institution that once was Mac's, a Sinatra-era fish house with a giant lobster sign that dated back 80-plus years. I always cheer for a seashore classic with such staying power. But Mac's had let me down before, first toward the end of its longtime ownership, when the Camelot Room and its suit of armor was getting creaky, and then under a more recently rehabbed rendition that sputtered out after a few years. Could its latest owners, Dan and Sandi Anderson, finally give this old standby new life after purchasing the restaurant out of bankruptcy?

They've got some work yet to do. With more than 50 combined years of experience at the nearby Ram's Head Inn, these two service veterans presumably have the talent and local savvy to make it happen. But at our visit, the packed 225-seat restaurant was a picture of confusion as the vast dining rooms of sunstruck tourists all seemed to be simultaneously waving in vain to track down the skittering young waitstaff for baskets of warm bread and water.

That cool water, crisply filtered into sweating glass milk jugs, was one the highlights of my meal. I'd also reorder the excellent little crab cakes dabbed with Cajun-spiced mayo, the spice-rubbed seared tuna with espresso-soy glaze, and the tender Caribbean barbecued chicken if I found myself back here. But for entrée prices that sit in the mid- to high-$20s, I found most of the main courses to be as uninspiring as a country club banquet, from the stunningly bland (and lukewarm) grouper piccata, to the clumsy shrimp and chicken orecchiette sauté (filled with uncooked mushrooms), to a $29 pot of bouillabaisse in which a generous helping of overcooked seafood awaited in a pale saffron broth beneath two stale croutons.

For neighborhood dining in this Central Shore area, we had better luck at Kitaro, the Asian fusion bistro that's replaced the Nostalgia Room on Atlantic Avenue - one of the few new options this year in the Ventnor-Margate area. Co-owners Tuan Ta and Dan Dang, who previously owned two places by the same name in Manhattan, did a fine job renovating the double-wide storefront next to Sage into a clean and modern space, adding a sushi bar, comfy leather chairs, and a line of birch tree trunks to divide the dining rooms. Kitaro likely will have a tough time competing on the sushi front with neighborhood mainstay Yama. The fish is perfectly fresh - I loved the thinly sliced fluke in ponzu sauce - but the rolls themselves are unremarkably standard, and with the exception of fresh abalone, the selection isn't especially notable, either.

Where Kitaro really shines is in Ta's hot-side fusion cooking. An entire red snapper is deboned and then fried to a delicate tempura crisp and sauced with sour and tingly tamarind-chile glaze. A generous filet mignon is infused with lemongrass, then splashed with exotic house-made steak sauce. The teriyaki, slow-brewed from chicken stock, ginger, caramelized onions, sake, and soy, has a dark richness without being overly sweet. My favorite, though, was an appetizer collaboration between the sushi bar and the kitchen - bite-size rolls of shiso leaves stuffed with spicy-crunchy tuna that, when lightly grilled, delivered a delicately crispy snap that swirled with minty herbaceousness, a hot-cold contrast plus sweet and spicy fish.

Farther north on Long Beach Island, restaurant debuts were equally slim. One intriguing newcomer - an organically minded breakfast-luncher called Black Eyed Susan's Café in Harvey Cedars - was still putting the finishing touches on its yet-to-open dining room in late June. So I decided to explore some of the island's simple seafood wonders instead. In Barnegat Light's Viking Village, we popped in for a midday snack at Off the Hook, where we savored grilled scallops that had been off-loaded onto the docks barely 100 yards away. They were so sweet and fresh, my seafood-awakening kids actually begged for more. Farther south in Beach Haven Terrace, I pulled up to the long plywood clam counter at the 63-year-old M&M Steam Bar just minutes before they rolled the garage-door walls down for the night - and what a good thing. They shucked me a topneck on the half shell I'll never forget. Harvested from the sandy bottoms of Barnegat Bay just that morning, the tender pink flesh snapped between my teeth with such tenderness, it washed my taste buds with a soft ocean brine that lingered pleasantly for hours.

After such wholesome natural bounties, there could be only one fitting conclusion: deep-fried wings from the Chicken or the Egg. Such a cult has grown up around this funky 24/7 diner since its opening in 1991 that the "Chegg" holds the status as Beach Haven's No. 1 restaurant (out of 46) by popular vote on TripAdvisor.com. But if ever user-driven website ratings should be considered with a grain of salt - the Chegg is a prime example of a spot that's ridden high on one true specialty and a wry chicken-centric menu humor. As a whole, our meal was no better than standard-issue diner fare: a decent chowder, a big pot pie with more potato than chicken, and an artless-but-still-tasty omelet filled with house-made chorizo.

When we dug into a pile of breaded wings, though, I suddenly saw the light. These were some of the best I've ever had - amazingly juicy and tender inside, with crusts that somehow remained crunchy beneath the various glazes of the Chegg's 15 different sauces. These sauces, of course, are half the fun, and range from smoky, mellow hickory barbecue, to a "bee sting" that actually tastes like honey, up the heat meter to habanero-fueled "ludicrous." OK, OK - those wings are definitely worth a vote, if not for island's best restaurant, at least as a must-stop destination on the late-night Shore munchie circuit.

Like every Shore visit, this summer's trip was filled with its share of mishap meals - including one disappointing Italian dinner at which the waiter, noting our displeasure, backed off an earlier boast that our pasta trio was homemade: "I didn't say it was made in our home," he hedged. "It's made in our purveyors' homes."

Little wonder, then, that my sharp 8-year-old, Arthur, would quiz the grandmotherly waitress at Mildred's in Strathmere the following night when considering the "homemade" ravioli: "Do you mean you make it in your house?"

It might be a surprise to anyone rolling past this well-aged white clapboard roadhouse across from the trailer park in Strathmere, but yes, in fact, pasta is made on-site daily here, much as it was when Mildred Conascenta first moved the old Llanerch Diner from Upper Darby to this dune-fringed spit of island in 1952. What is stunning, though, is the rare continuity Mildred's has maintained under the Raffa family. Chef Andy Raffa, to whom Conascenta gave the restaurant when she died, has worked in the kitchen here for 45 of his 62 years and still arrives daily at 4 a.m. to butcher, prep the deviled crabs, and slow-simmer the tomato gravy and sauces. Wife Sallee, daughter of a 42-year Mildred's waitress, has been there four decades herself. All five of their kids work at the restaurant, too, including daughter Christie, 24, who now runs the kitchen line at night.

There's nothing trendy at all about this old standby, which has the humble look of a tidy diner. But much like Busch's, its soon-to-be-history kindred spirit at the southern end of this barrier island, Mildred's offers rare proof that a traditional menu - priced fairly with entrées in the mid-$20s - can still be timeless when cooked with care and top-notch ingredients. The two-inch-thick prime rib served in a pool of dark jus here was as broad as a racket and as tender as prime-grade beef butter. The crab imperial was a deceptively filling crock of creamy lump-crab indulgence. The lightly pounded veal Parmesan was worthy of the best South Philly competition. But so was that homemade pasta, too, the superfine threads of toothy spaghetti that get a deep-red stripe of Raffa's soulful gravy, a rich ragu patiently steeped with pork bones and nearly a half-century of practiced craft.

They've got it down. In a summer that saw fewer new restaurants make their mark, Mildred's proved to be one tasty classic that more than filled the void.


Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Han Dynasty in Old City. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com or 215-854-4795.

The Chicken or the Egg

207 N. Bay Ave., Beach Haven

609-492-3695; www.492fowl.com

Open 24/7 from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Off-season, open daily 7 a.m.-10 p.m. BYOB.

Kitaro

5214 Atlantic Ave., Ventnor

609-289-8693

Lunch Monday through Friday, noon-3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 1-10 p.m. BYOB.

Luke Palladino

Plaza 9, 1333 New Rd., Northfield, 609-646-8189; www.lukepalladino.com

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:30 p.m. BYOB.

M&M Steam Bar

13301 Long Beach Blvd. (at Delaware), Beach Haven Terrace,

609-492-9106

Clam bar open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. BYOB.

Mildred's Strathmere Restaurant

901 Commonwealth (Ocean Drive) and Prescott Road, Strathmere

609-263-8209; www.

mildredsstrathmererestaurant.com

Dinner nightly, 4-9 p.m. (Palm Sunday weekend through Columbus Day.) BYOB, or bottles from Cape May Winery available for sale. All major cards but Amex. Reservations highly suggested.

Off the Hook

Viking Village, 1905 Bayview Ave., Barnegat Light

609-361-8900; www.vikingoffthehook.com.

Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro

908 Shore Rd., Somers Point

609-927-2300; www.sandipointe.com

Lunch Wednesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Friday, 4-10 p.m.; Saturdays, until 11 p.m.

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