eat & drink
● TIN TON FALLS
AMBIENCE Welcoming and cozy chic
DRINKS Creative (if weak) cocktails; small but solid
wine list, 17 by the glass; 13 beers
PRICES Appetizers, $7-$14; entrées, $11-$23; desserts, $9-$11
OPEN Dinner, Wednesday-Sunday X
F5119 Asbury Avenue; 732-922-9799;
By Marissa Rothkopf Bates
My heart goes out to well-mean- ing, modern chefs like Chris Calabrese who open places
like Nettie’s House of Spaghetti with
a Southern Italian bent. While there’s
room in this world for heaps of chicken
parm blanketed in molten cheese, that’s
just not Nettie’s. As one Yelper noted,
leaping to its defense, Nettie’s isn’t try-ing to be the Olive Garden.
I hope Calabrese’s zucchini parmigiana will convince people of the power
of restraint. At the Tinton Falls restaurant, zucchini is sliced as thin as lasagna
noodles and layered with just enough
cheese and a bright, house tomato sauce
for structure and flavor. The result is
delicate and elegant—not words usually
associated with Jersey parmigianas.
In 2018, Calabrese and his wife,
Tania, took over Luigi’s, a restaurant and
bar since 1959. They shed the Formica,
glamorized the bar and created a vibe
Calabrese calls “Art Deco meets Italian
tavern.” His goal was to make Italian
restaurant eating more like the way his
wife and he eat at home: big and small
plates, with many flavors, to share. He’s
since attracted a following of Monmouth
County chefs and restaurant workers.
Standouts included log-shaped arancini (not the traditional orb). Result? A
favorable increase in crunchy exterior
relative to warm, cheesy interior. Minimally sauced meatballs were crusty and
caramelized, delicately showcasing meat
and parsley inside.
The chef has a heart for vegetarians
(his wife is one), and the vegetable-
focused appetizers were nearly all
worthwhile, especially the meltingly soft
roasted fennel on housemade ricotta,
crowned with parsley gremolata.
I had to be convinced by my guests to
order the fresh mozzarella. Around the
Garden State, everyone and their nonna
makes it fresh, right? True as that may
be, not as many manage to produce mozzarella with the same creamy, melting
qualities of Nettie’s.
Spaghetti arrabiata had a fresh-tasting
red sauce touched with butter that balanced the heat of the Calabrian chilies. Others at my table liked the simple
carbonara, the mango-yellow, egg-based
sauce courtesy of some local chickens.
This carbonara, lighter than most, let its
few ingredients shine. (Having grown-up
with my mother’s carbonara, a more buttery, cheesy version she learned from a
lovely lady in Milan in the 1960s, I found
Nettie’s on the bland side.) Tortellini
stuffed with mortadella, prosciutto and
Parmigiano-Reggiano floated in a mild
broth. It would be as at home in Emilia-Romagna as it was in Tinton Falls.
There were missteps. Baked clams
were all about breadcrumbs; my guests
and I made a game of finding the clams.
Nettie’s chicken Savoy was the wrong
side of pink the night we had it, and the
vinegar sauce was wan. (However, it
was served with a clever fried-to-order
breaded confit of chicken leg.) Another
evening, the spaghetti in clam sauce was
watery and shudderingly gritty. (It has
since been replaced with an intriguing-sounding spicy squid in tomato brodo
pasta.) We also were served a link of
housemade fennel sausage that had
burst its seams and dried out.
Desserts follow the simple-is-better
formula. Pillowy bomboloni redolent
of warm yeast and sugar were served
with olive oil-enhanced whipped cream.
The Sicilian orange cake, with its dense
crumb and sticky orange glaze, was
the star (especially when eaten with
whipped cream from the bomboloni).
Calabrese’s small-plate approach is a
welcome break with Italian-American
tradition. Bring people who love to
share, and enjoy the varied wine list and
each other’s company. For all my quibbles, my guests and I always left Nettie’s
in a jolly mood. The combination of good
food, happy staff and convivial atmosphere will do that.
By Tara Nurin
what do gin and tonic, Scotch and
soda, and rum and Coke have in common?
They’re highballs, basically the baseline
cocktail: a shot, a mixer and ice in a tall
glass. The highball, not overly strong
thanks to the mixer, fits with the current
interest in traditional cocktails and a
national trend toward drinking less.
“In spring and summer, you want
something refreshing,” says Cesar Reyes,
of Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg.
“Customers don’t want drinks neat, and
this way they can have multiple drinks.”
Tavern in Morristown.
“The Highball Machine does something ordinary bar guns can’t: it cools the
whisky and water to near freezing for
less dilution from melting ice and greater
retention of carbonation,” says brand
ambassador Gardner Dunn.
For home mixologists, “ice is important,”
says Debbie Anday, a consultant who
designed the highball program at Ariane
Kitchen & Bar in Verona. “If you serve a
highball with a chilled soda, I prefer nice,
large cubes, so not to overdilute your drink.”
+ Kitchen bar manager Donny Nelson
makes a highball-inspired Rabbit Rum
Punch, which consists of rum, Cynar artichoke liqueur, almond milk, fresh-pressed
carrot juice, a dash of agave and grated
cardamom. A long way from a highball,
but “it’s pretty fun.” I L L