Inside an expansive dining room, servers float between elegant table settings carrying Italian dishes that have earned various accolades since Panico’s inception in 1987. Below the diffused light of wall sconces, conversations buzz along the expansive leather banquette as vodka-sauce penne, pan-seared lamb, and seafood-stuffed ravioli make their way from the kitchen. Diligent servers painstakingly debone the grilled whole fish of the day tableside before pouring bottles of red and white vino from the extensive wine list. To conclude meals or inadvertently incite stooge-level food fights, they serve a lineup of desserts that includes Italian sorbetti, amaretto cheesecakes, chocolate-chip cannolis, and apple and pear cobblers.
Bensi co-owner Genci Previzi helms an immense menu of classic Italian cuisine, including hearty homestyle dishes with roots in Calabria, Italy. Entrees, joined by a house salad or cup of comforting housemade soup, range from spaghetti and meatballs to gluten-free grilled chicken in a lemon-garlic marinade served over a veggie medley. The chefs also prepare an array of specials such as pignoli-crusted goat cheese and arugula salad, barolo-braised veal osso buco, pan-seared Chilean sea bass with eggplant caponata, and nutella chocolate pizza with fresh strawberries. The dishes are served in a modern dining atmosphere where minimal table settings and simple dark-wood furniture keep the focus on the vibrant cuisine.
Fine Italian Cuisine | Handmade Pasta | Raw Bar | Colossal Wine List | Award-Winning Restaurateur
The Chef: Wisconsin native Michael White has built his career on crafting authentic and innovative Italian cuisine. The eateries in his Altamarea Group have received heaps of praise, including the title of Best New Restaurant from GQ magazine and the James Beard Foundation.
While You're Waiting: Settle by the circular bar near Due Mari's front entrance for a pour from its 15-page list of wines and spirits.
What's in a Name? In Italian, due mari translates to "two seas." It's an apt moniker for Chef White's eatery, which specializes in Italian seafood such as local swordfish and daily selections of oysters.
While You're in the Neighborhood
Before: Trace earth's geological journey with minerals, fossils, and specimens at Rutgers Geology Museum (85 Somerset Street).
After: Yuk it up with emerging and veteran jokesters at Stress Factory Comedy Club (90 Church Street).
If You Can’t Make It, Try This: Sample more of Chef White's Italian cuisine at his other New Jersey eatery, Osteria Morini (107 Morristown Road, Bernardsville).
For more than 20 decades, the staff at the family-owned PJ's Grill & Pizza has instilled everything from Sicilian pies to veal parmesan with the personal touch of homemade recipes. In addition to classic pizzeria fare, the menu also boasts a few Mediterranean classics such as falafel, gyros, and greek salad, and moist slices of red velvet cake make for a satisfying end to a meal or effective energy boost during a marathon.
Pasquale’s Ristorante Italiano crafts house-made pastas, entrees, and decadent desserts for an elegant, old-world menu of Italian favorites. A clutch of pan-seared scallops and shrimp spill over an umami-laden porcini risotto ($20.95) like a gift from a mermaid secret admirer left on the shore, and boneless short ribs with a port-wine glaze recline on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes ($20.95). Light-as-air gnocchi hopscotch through bolognese sauce studded with mascarpone cheese squares ($13.95). A slice of Nonna’s cheesecake, finished with raspberry puree, puts a ricotta exclamation point at the end of savory meals. Homey floral arrangements and warm, golden walls meet sleek booths and a streamlined full bar in Pasquale's dining room, suiting moods ranging from casual to extravagant. Reservations are recommended.
Within La Tavola's butter-hued walls, decorative partitions and flowing red curtains subdivide the dining room. Amid these stately accents, owners Jill and Steve Sullivan present an elegant menu of contemporary Italian fare. Chicken and seafood arrive pan-seared or roasted with basil pesto and lemon-caper butter, whereas gamey meats such as rabbit complement traditional spiral and straight pastas. Diners may also requisition the sconce-laden space for private parties of up to 150 guests or 300 acrobats willing to stand atop one another's shoulders.