Italian Food

Restaurant Review – Catelli Duo in Voorhees, NJ

For the first time in months I sampled “fine dining” fare not seasoned by my tears. While feeling adventurous this past weekend I took a trip to Voorhees and dined at Catelli Duo. Their website reads that they “do Italian differently.” I feasted on a quality meal in an elegant setting. When compared to my other dining experiences over the last few months that alone made it “different”.

Upon entering the building a sophisticated interior greeted me. Wine racks adorned the dining area. Lights located underneath the bar top added to the elegance. The bar also featured cushioned seats that maximized patrons’ comfort. An opening to the kitchen allowed diners to watch the chefs working. That feature always impresses me. It shows that the people preparing food don’t have anything to hide. The restroom featured hands-free faucets that emptied into large transparent bowls. Of course, all this luxury came at a price.

I began my meal with a Lobster Bisque soup. The menu described it as including “jumbo lump crabmeat.” At first I thought it a bit watery, but after stirring, the broth thickened and became rather tasty. I thought the price a bit high at $6.00, but for the portion and the quality of the meal, it didn’t bother me.

As I enjoy both seafood and Italian, one choice really caught my attention. Catelli Duo billed the Seafood Ravioli as “house-made seafood ravioli stuffed with shrimp, crab, lobster cream”. When I read that, I knew exactly what to have for lunch. The chef prepared the dish in a creamy white wine sauce.  Once again I had to stir it to get the flavor right. After doing so the meal mesmerized me. I’d call the quality of the seafood superlative. The sauce tasted rather sweet. I’m not a big wine drinker, but the libation they used gave the meal the perfect seasoning. While a bit pricey at $16.00, the quality justified it.

Catelli Duo’s website claims, “We’re not just doing Italian differently—we’re reinventing it.” That’s a bold assertion, but the superiority of the food verified it. My trip to Catelli doesn’t need a “do-over”, but I plan on dining there again.

Restaurant Review – Il Villaggio in Cherry Hill, NJ

I felt leery dining at Il Villaggio. As the name included a homonym of the word ill, I didn’t enter the building with high hopes. The again, with the advent of Obamacare in America, I thought I’d give it a try. Who knows? The way things are going maybe I could even get taxpayers to pick-up the bill. Upon looking at the prices, I realized the impossibility of this. As the Federal Budget is a paltry 14 billion dollars, the government wouldn’t be able to afford it. While pricey, Il Villaggio delivered a decent dining experience.

I found the ambiance inviting. Upon entering, the site of an elegant chandelier and spacious gilded dining area greeted me. Then the hostess led my group into a more ‘cozy’ setting. This room had three long tables. They seated my party (of 26) at two of them. Another group came in later and sat at the third. With the frigid January temperatures outside, all the people crammed together did help to warm things up.

I opted to take the vegetarian route once again. As readers of this column will no doubt recall, I did this once before at another restaurant I reviewed. As they will also remember, the results didn’t please me. I’m not one to ever give up on a bad idea, so I went for a vegetarian evening again.

On the occasion I dined at Il Villaggio, they offered Cream of Asparagus as one of the soups of the day. I like soup, I like vegetables and I like asparagus. What could go wrong? What they served didn’t quite meet my definition of soup. Asparagus Gespacho may have been a more fitting appellation for this appetizer. It was rather tepid, even cool. Due to the cramped quarters, the temperature of the room exceeded that of the soup. It’s never good when that happens. I discerned a sweetness to the broth. It also lacked a certain ingredient. Unfortunately, its namesake turned to be the missing element. I found very few stalks in the broth, though. They also tasted very crunchy. I’m not used to crispy vegetables. Maybe it’s an Italian thing.

As I resolved to lose weight for the new year, I ordered another vegetable based dish for my main course. I went for the Zucchini Parmesan. I’ve had Eggplant Parmesan many times, but I’ve never heard of this meal. The menu described it as, “lightly fried layers of zucchini topped with melted mozzarella cheese, over rigatoni pasta marinara sauce.” I liked it, but I can understand it isn’t for everybody. The texture reminded me of a cross somewhere between eggplant and mushrooms; both of which I’m fond. I did enjoy it and thought the portion proportional to the price. The chef got all the spices right to make it a good quality Italian meal. I can’t recollect dining at a place that offered rigatoni as a choice of pasta. It made the meal unique and complimented the main course well.

In spite of liking the entrée, I didn’t think the cost justified, though. As I mentioned before, I went with a group. The organizer informed us how much we owed at the end of the evening. I don’t know what the soup cost, but the entrée came in at $16.00. For comparison’s sake, the Veal Parmesan cost $19.00. They priced the Chicken Parm at $17.00. While the Zucchini Parm was rightly cheaper than the meats, I still thought the price high. After all, the main ingredient was only a vegetable.

I need to go off for a moment. I’ve encountered this before in the form of an $11.00 can of spinach at a restaurant. What’s with the high cost of vegetables these days? Does their cost vary inversely with fuel prices? I’m just wondering. This seems silly to me.

I didn’t partake in desert. While no one in my group complained about the quality, this time I really thought the prices ridiculously high. Everything on the desert menu cost somewhere in the seven dollar range. The gentleman seated next to me ordered a bowl of berries with two scoops of pistachio ice cream. I could’ve gone to Yogurtland and had a larger portion of Pistachio Yogurt with some fruit toppings for less money than that.

The staff conducted themselves extremely well. Our main server did an outstanding job of presenting all the specials. The speed with which they delivered our dinner impressed me. I also applaud their professionalism in serving everyone in our large party at the same time.

Some people say that eating a high quality meal is the purpose of fine dining: not receiving large portions. After all, not every establishment can be The Pub (in Pennsauken) where one receives enough food that obviates the need to grocery shop for a week. I understand and respect their point. I do think that Il Villaggio’s prices a bit out of the norm even for quality dining. For readers okay with that, I think Il Villaggio definitely worth a visit.

Restaurant Review – Zio’s Tuscan Grille

Zio’s Tuscan Grille in Cinnaminson, NJ does Italian right.  They offer a wide variety of appealing dishes. They prepare so many, in fact, that it took me several minutes to get through the entire menu. As a huge fan of Italian cuisine, I would’ve struggled to select one from the multitude of options. The tyranny of choice ended up giving way to rather easy decision for me. As an even bigger fan of sea food, my eye locked on the Linguini with Shrimp and Crabmeat. With the ability to combine my two favorite types of food at one meal, I relished the opportunity to try it.

 The quality of the meal lived up to my expectations. The shrimp tasted good and juicy. It’s been a long time since I’ve had crabmeat, and the kind that came with this meal made the wait well worthwhile. The sauce had just the right seasoning. The chef prepared the pasta flawlessly. The server brought over some hot pepper seasoning and parmesan cheese. As I had the option of how much pepper to add, I gave my meal just the right kick. The dish tasted fantastic. I’d highly recommend and would be delighted to try it again.

Seafood dishes always cost a bit more than other meals. I thought the quality of the meal justified the price on its own. However, this one also came with salad. I thought the lettuce very fresh and tasty. I added Zio’s balsamic dressing. When my server offered it, I thought I’d be receiving a balsamic vinaigrette house dressing. Not so. The one she served me had a thicker texture and possessed a brownish hue. I found this dressing much more flavorful that I expected. The proper amount of vinegar gave it the right tangy taste. I don’t typically go out to eat and comment on the quality of the salad dressing. For this I give Zio’s major kudos.

Zio’s served two different types of bread: both outstanding. The one circular in shape had a cheesy flavor to it. I liked it because I could taste the cheese without feeling like a Danish exploded in my mouth. Once again, Zio’s found the right combination. The flat bread contained some Italian herbs on the outside and the flavor of olive oil on the inside. I liked this bread, but would’ve preferred just a touch of some kind of spice. That would’ve made it perfect.

The only criticism I can offer of my visit there involved the beverages. I thought the iced tea too watery. I didn’t care for the quality of the water, either. It tasted like regular tap water. As someone who drinks a lot of bottled water, I found it significantly different from what I’m used to. Zio’s doesn’t serve alcohol, they are a BYOB establishment. Obviously, there’s a very easy way for patrons to deal with the beverage issue.  

I enjoyed my trip to Zio’s Tuscan Grille. They served Italian right and at the right price.      The service, atmosphere and quality of the food all impressed me. The next time I can’t make up my mind between eating Italian or having sea food, there’s one place that will be on my short list for dinner.