I apologize for not posting in a while; I haven’t had a minute to spare!
This week has been dedicated to wedding planning, and it is probably one of the most time consuming endeavors I have ever encountered. In addition, I have dividing my time seeing friends and family. I have been in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania all this week (and sometimes, all three states in one day.) Even though I have been driving around like crazy, I am happy to be here to get my Italian/New York fixes.
Living in North Carolina for the past few months, I have missed out on a lot of great pasta, pizza, bagels (you know–the holy trinity of carbohydrates). While I am back “home,” I have to take advantage and eat them all–practically every day.
When I was visiting my friend Cassandra, author of Bottlesoup, she told me we should have lunch at her favorite local Italian restaurant called Sanducci’s Trattoria.
For me to review an Italian restaurant, it has to exceed my high expectations. As a native New Yorker, I did not need to go out often for Italian food growing up. It’s what my grandmother made, it’s what my mother made, and it’s obviously what I can do as well. I find myself disappointed often when I go out to eat for Italian–(except pizza: without the brick oven at home, the results can never be as good). There are a few gems, however, that are absolutely what I need from an Italian place: I need an upperscale interpretation of classic comfort Italian dishes with heightened complexity. This place can make what we all know and love but take it to the next level (all without totally breaking the bank: it’s a little bit more than going to your local pizzeria but less than going to a fine dining establishment.) While I recommend this place, I will be honest about what I felt foot the bill, and what I could do without again…
Appetizer: Ginger Sesame Fried Calamari
This is definitely my favorite item here. I know what you’re thinking. Sesame and ginger are not Italian. But the way they fry the calamari is–it’s light and delicate, not rubbery or chewy. P.S: I am totally inspired to re-create this…
Calamari must start with a flour based dredge; if you ever eat calamari with a heavy breading (breadcrumbs versus the latter mention of flour), move away. It is too light and delicate of a fish for all that! Also, calamari should always be lightly fried because if it is in oil too long, it will become greasy and tough to chew. This calamari clearly has perfect flour coating to get the crispiness necessary.
The sauce, like I said, un-Italian but rather Asian in its style, is absolutely delicious. It is a sweet chili base with hints of honey and red pepper flake (maybe some orange–that’s something I was sensing), and the sesame seeds really coordinate well with the crunch of the properly prepared calamari. The aroma is very floral and sweet from the glaze. The green onions also bring fresh, brightness to the dish by distributing just the lightest flavor of onion to the fish. By the way, if you want to sound like you’re an Italian New Yorker, say GAL-A-MAAAHD–the slang will give you some respect, or at least, will give you a laugh for a minute.
Rating: 10 out of 10
Soup: Pasta Fagioli
My favorite peasant food from Italy is Pasta Fagioli. I am obsessed with white beans (cannellini beans), and this soup is one of my favorite dishes my grandmother makes. But it’s not quite like my Nonna’s!
Pasta fagioli is a white bean soup; however, my grandmother always made it thick so it was more like a sauce for pasta. The way she makes it looks like vodka sauce versus liquid-y soup like this. So of course, there is a bias there, but I will happily give it a go.
I tasted the garlic notes and the broth had the right amount of seasoning herb wise, but I believe it fell short on the parmesan. I needed to add the cheese to take it to a new height, or at the very least, what I expect pasta fagioli to do for me. The onion notes in the soup were present, and it was good–but again–it needed the cheese! If you order this, make sure you put copious amount of cheese because the parmesan base is missing here.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Entree: Penne alla Vodka
The way to test an Italian restaurant is to eat a popular dish and see how it is prepared. The sauce was cheesy and creamy as expected; however, the meat (prosciutto) was a bit too large for the delicate pasta. This was very flavorful with a minor execution error.
The tomato-y, creamy-base was very flavorful with the ham profile in the sauce. There was a balance of spice that was countered with the coolness from the area, without overwhelming the sauce. My only complaint of this dish is that the prosciutto was chunked almost like a piece of sausage. Prosciutto, dried, cured Italian ham, is an excellent complement to vodka sauce, but should be used sparingly. Thinly sliced prosciutto is better suited here. I also think more green would have made this great; I like vodka sauce with green peas!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Entree: Homemade Black Linguini with Chunks of Brazilian Lobster Tails in Pink Cognac Sauce
The last test of a good Italian restaurant is to see what they do beyond the expected–again, heightened complexity. This is Cassandra’s “go-to” that she orders often. As opposed to a typical “vodka sauce,” this blush rosa sauce is made with cognac which adds a touch of class and refinement.
This is one of those dishes you see on a menu and say, “Ooh–that sounds interesting!” One of the privileges that people should take advantage of when they go out to eat is to try something they could not readily make at home. Although making pasta isn’t necessarily difficult, fresh pasta should always be commended as it makes a world of difference for taste.
This pasta in particular is black in color; if this is off-putting to you, be comforted with the reason as to why: it is made this color from squid ink. Oh, you don’t like squid? If you like calamari, you like squid! The pasta has a very modern appearance when black–it does not look nor taste conventional. Although not overpowering, there is a slight seafood flavor that comes from the squid’s ink that is perfectly appropriate in this dish.
The sauce, because it has a cognac base, has a slight sweetness that pairs well with the tomato cream sauce. If you like vodka sauce, but want to kick it up a notch, this is the sauce for you to try. Cognac and lobster are the two ingredients that make this pasta become eligible as First Class. Brazilian lobster, when prepared properly, is excellent and succulent (I personally love Maine Lobster better as it is sweeter).
Cassandra mentioned that this dish usually has better lobster (she felt it was slightly overcooked the day we tried it); however, I could see how this dish is a favorite of hers, and how I will definitely look to order it again when I am back in Bergen county! This is Italian elegance with modern flair–a perfect, romantic meal.
Rating: 9 out of 10