This month, we visited a restaurant that has been earning high ratings and customer loyalty since 2002. Piccola Italia is located in the Cobblestone Village strip mall in Ocean Township (or Oakhurst, depending on where you like to draw your line), just off West Park Avenue and Route 35. Actually, that little shopping village is home to numerous restaurants that offer a diverse selection of multi-national cuisines, all worth checking out. Piccola Italia is owned by the husband and wife team of general manager Carolina Gualtieri and chef/owner, Brian Gualtieri. Chef-owned restaurants are often good picks, and this was no exception to the rule. This chef takes an innovative approach to Italian dishes, adding a farm-to-table feel to each item. His dishes are restrained and very satisfying, making this a good pick for just about any dining companions. There is a large common lot with plenty of parking. The restaurant has a main dining room, a smaller private dining area where we ate, and to the left is a long, well-stocked bar with a very jovial and capable bartender at the helm. The décor is soft earth tones, but the walls come alive with the boldly vibrant artwork of local artist Jose Serrano. His paintings hang on every wall, giving the room a gallery feel and an underlying energy of excitement. Robin, who is also the events coordinator, welcomed us to our table and we set about selecting our appetizers.
We started with three, but before they arrived, we were treated to a muse from the kitchen; a crispy fried green tomato that was so delicious, it should be on the regular menu. We had the bruschetta plate, which is served with a dish of mixed marinated olives. We also had the antipasto. It is a big and artfully displayed dish, capable of serving up to four people. And in the spirit of the season, we ordered the Candy Cane beet salad. There are no peppermint sticks in the salad; the candy cane refers to a type of beet that has red and white stripes before cooking. The chef combines two types of beets, which are topped with whipped honey goat cheese, walnuts, pears, and watercress with a port wine sherry dressing. This was my favorite. Two of us split the salad and there was plenty for each. If you are even remotely fond of beets, do try this unusual and flavorful selection.
Now for the entrees. Diner one chose the toasted almond encrusted Sea Bream that comes with orzo, spaghetti squash, and pumpkin coulee. I didn’t know what a bream was, either. Simply put, the bream is a dream! It’s a Mediterranean fish in the sunfish family and this dish was incredible. The nuttiness of the almonds, the rich fall flavors of the orzo with the squash – I’m going back to have one of my own. Diner two made a pasta pick, choosing the house-made gnocchi that is served with baby spinach and royal trumpet mushrooms in a porcini cream sauce. It was a delight. The gnocchi were light and fluffy and paired against the spinach it had a real homemade taste. The fresh flavors had a nice punch without being overpowering. I picked the pork chops that came with risotto with diced sweet potato. It is a very large double chop, served standing up and draped in sauted green beans. The pork was well cooked and the creamy risotto delivered an earthy gratification. I don’t really see the need for the diced sweet potato chunks; they didn’t offer much flavor and texturally, they clashed with the creamy risotto. Just a small thing that did little to affect the satisfaction of this rustic dish.
For dessert, we chose the Apple Crumb Cake, which is served warm and is a very harvesty treat made with caramelized apples, and a thick layer of crumb topping, with a cool scoop of vanilla gelato. We also ordered trio of gelatos, which were delicious. The flavors change often and our assortment included a scoop each of vanilla, dark chocolate, and a dulce de leche gelato. The desserts were good, but if you only have so much room for indulgence, I would order a second appetizer and skip dessert. That night, we were also treated an after-dinner glass of sweet port wine, which was a lovely meal-ender and made us feel that our visit was appreciated by the staff.
Just a couple of notes: The online menu serves as a good guideline, but it does not match the restaurant menu, as the chef makes seasonal variations on many of the dishes. Additionally, the restaurant hosts a variety of different events, like cooking classes and wine dinners. It’s best to enroll in their email club if you like to be notified of special events. Finally, the restaurant will be closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day, but open both eves with special holiday menus. Piccola Italia is a longstanding lunch and dinner favorite that has received consistent high Zagat ratings and it’s about to get a high rating from us, as well. It is quiet and lively at the same time, a good choice for almost any occasion, and will not disappoint.
The cost: Moderate
What we liked: The general friendliness of the staff, the little surprises from the kitchen, the effervescent artwork, large bar and its nice wine list, the generous portions, and the creative chef.
What could be better: We’d like to see a few more desserts, maybe a couple of traditional Italian desserts.
We give it 4and three quarter J’s.
Piccola Italia is located at 837 West Park Avenue in the Cobblestone Village in Ocean Township. It’s open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m. and dinner Monday through Sunday from 5:00 p.m. Call (732) 493-3090. Visit www.piccolaitalianj.com.