It would be easy to spend an entire day at Calandra's Italian Village?perusing the colorful packaged Italian imports in the market, lingering over a cup of pistachio gelato in the gelateria, and finishing off with a glass of wine in the bar. Wanderers who stroll to the left of the village stumble into Il Vecchio Cafe, where Italian tapestries adorn the walls and diners chat animatedly at wooden tabletops. Servers dart across the sunlit floors, bearing plates of homemade penne alla vodka, eggplant caprese panini, and broiled tilapia and refilling glasses of wine. A counter overlooks the kitchen, where a wood-burning oven bakes thin-crust pizzas. Wooden beams and vintage-style walls enclose the tabletops that speckle the outdoor stone deck, creating the look of a rustic Italian farm or the set of a movie where a rich businessman learns the value of friendship from a talking countryside mouse.
It would be easy to pass an entire afternoon in Frank Anthony's lush garden courtyard, reclining on comfortable patio chairs and slowly polishing off a bottle of BYOB wine. Servers stroll through the forest of linen umbrellas, expertly balancing trays of Italian dishes while refilling glasses of San Pellegrino. Inside the elegant dining hall, intimate tabletops host guests, whose faces are illuminated by the glow of soft hanging lights. In the kitchen, chefs fold fresh meats, seafood, and seasonal vegetables into traditional Italian dishes, tossing crispy calamari in garlic, baking crusty Italian rolls, and crushing plum tomatoes using only their minds. Meanwhile, pizzas rise in the oven, speckled with toppings of wild mushrooms, savory sausage, and spicy peppers.
At Ah' Pizz, pizzas only leave the chefs' hands for 90 seconds during the creation process. That's how long it takes the hand-stretched, Neapolitan–style pies to bake inside the imported Italian pizza oven, which burns through enough oak wood logs to reach temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees. After 90 seconds, the thin pies emerge with a crispy, chewy crust and melted medallions of housemade mozzarella. By adhering to these rigorous, time-honored traditions, Ah' Pizz was one of four New Jersey eateries to receive a seal of approval from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana—an international non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the historic culinary arts of Neapolitan pizza makers. Although the oven imparts a signature, smoky flavor, Ah' Pizz's chefs further distinguish their pizzas by incorporating premium ingredients whenever possible. San Marzano tomatoes, ham, and burrata cheese are imported directly from Italy, lending distinctive, Mediterranean flavors to the 13 different pies. At the same time, the chefs keep the menu's flavors close to home by making everything from caesar dressing to ricotta gnocchi in-house. Much like the menu, the restaurant's ambiance aspires to be more refined than the typical neighborhood pizzeria. Pillars and archways of exposed brickwork lend a rustic vibe to the space, although it is balanced by sleek, modern touches, such as the dark wooden tables and the floating pendant lamps that are presumably operated by remote control.
With its conspicuously Italian name, Trattoria Rustica is not putting on airs, but rather paying homage to its authentic roots. Born in Calabria, Italy, owner and head chef Pat Turano naturally gravitates to the fresh ingredients and homespun cooking that breathe life into the cuisine of his native country. Drawing from his family background and a culinary career that spans 25 years, Pat whips up antipasti such as homemade, ricotta-stuffed meatballs and grilled calamari, as well as entrees that include rigatoni with vodka sauce and salmon served over cannelli beans and spinach. After conquering their entrees, diners can savor forkfuls of cannolli and tiramisu as their meal draws to an end. Trattoria Rustica's snug interior evokes Old World gentility with walls forged from a blend of vintage, exposed bricks and sandstone-hued stucco painted with murals of rustic Italy. Pendant lights and understated chandeliers envelope the eatery in a soft glow as guests nestle in dark wood chairs and fold the corners of white tablecloths into origami replicas of their meals.
Fascino's skilled chefs utilize fresh, seasonal ingredients to create a menu of authentic Italian dishes that led New Jersey Monthly to name it one of the 25 Best Restaurants in 2010. Diners start satiety by swimming cornmeal-crusted calamari through pools of tomato-fennel compote ($12) before picking a flavorful fistfight of tender, braised short ribs luxuriating in a port-celery-seed glaze ($32). House-made pumpkin mezzaluna, bathing in oregano brown butter and crushed candied walnuts ($14–$24), demonstrates a brilliant use of fresh-made pasta and extruders, aside from Play-Doh hair plugs. Sweet teeth polish hunger to a sweet sheen by indulging in the New York State mcintosh apple crostata paired with cinnamon gelato ($9). Resourceful imbibers can indulge the BYO wine policy, and the waived corkage fee allows for a free show from the corkscrew-fanged vampire kept on retainer.
Winner of the 2010 Taste of Essex for Best Overall Dish and Best Appetizer, Gencarelli's Cucina features a robust menu of fine Southern Italian cuisine that features both authentic family recipes and trailblazing new tastes. Traditionalists can tickle their taste buds with the Sunday Gravy ($21.95), a rigatoni dish topped with meatballs, sausage and homemade marinara, or the linguine with shrimp ($11.95), a lunch menu favorite both for its rich savor and its knowledge of state capitals. Executive chef Marcell Veiga, scheduled to appear on the Food Network's Iron Chef America, bends time, space, and culinary convention with his Rib Eye Gorgonzola, ($26.95), a 14-ounce steak topped with roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach. The Toscana Parma ($21.95), composed of thinly sliced eggplant and zucchini parmigiano, is one of several options available for vegetarians.