Everything about this crowded, bustling, traditional Italian restaurant smacks of a memorable dining experience in Rome or Florence—except perhaps its location, directly across the street from the ocean in Sea Bright. But with its polished hardwood floors, frosted globe chandeliers, dark green tablecloths, and exposed brick and muraled walls, Anjelica’s feels far removed from the Shore.
The mostly male waitstaff, dressed in black, attend to diners’ every need or request. In our case, that included changing a pasta dish from red to white sauce; returning a piece of properly pink tuna to the kitchen for extra cooking to satisfy my daughter’s tastebuds; turning a pasta entrée into an appetizer; and bringing a bowl of warm lemon water after a finger-licking encounter with lobster, not to mention several replacements of bread, forks, knives, and napkins. Most impressive, however, was the dizzying list of specials, more than fifteen dishes, that our waiter reeled off from memory, complete with preparation details.
The narrow 85-seat dining room may seem a bit crowded, but this only adds to the convivial atmosphere. When my friend apologized to the woman behind him for elbowing her, she graciously dismissed his concern before returning to her large party, chattering away in English and Italian. The patrons here are mostly locals in the know, from nearby Rumson, Little Silver, and Fair Haven, who have been regulars at Anjelica’s since Ray Lena opened and named this restaurant after his daughter fourteen years ago.
“Our customers are very loyal,” says managing partner Francesco Panucci. “These are people who eat out all the time. I’m not saying they only come here, but we’re usually their first choice.”
The kitchen, under the direction of head chef Edgar Daza, works its feats just beyond an etched-glass divider at the rear of the restaurant, giving diners a hint of the action. We sampled four shellfish antipasti, all outstanding: seared scallops in a tomato-basil pesto; classic calamari fritti with a tangy marinara sauce; nicely browned baked mushrooms, stuffed with lump crabmeat and shrimp in a white wine and lemon sauce; and a crabcake, a bit small but crunchy-surfaced and rich with crabmeat and shrimp, served with a horseradish remoulade.
Another notable appetizer was crisp bruschetta topped with pleasantly charred goat cheese over tomatoes, chopped greens, and a splash of truffle oil. The two salads we sampled were also memorable—so much so that the following night my daughter tried to recreate hers (tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and white anchovies in olive oil and lemon) at home. Alas, the shriveled canned anchovies one can buy in a supermarket cannot match these fat, juicy, fresh ones Anjelica’s imports from southern Spain.
When I asked if I could get the linguini with broccoli rabe and sausage as an appetizer, the kitchen happily obliged. I could have walked away fully sated after tackling this plate of perfectly cooked pasta piled high with sauteed broccoli rabe and grilled chunks of earthy housemade pork sausage.
But I had a job to do, so it was onto the main course. My grilled veal chop, stuffed with fontina, was a 28-ounce marvel that Panucci described as “veal porterhouse,” since it includes the veal’s butter-soft filet and a bonus tail section, stuffed with the sweet melted cheese. Grilled filet mignon, topped with portobello mushroom cooked in a caramelized balsamic reduction, was delicious as well. Likewise the meaty rack of lamb in red wine reduction, each rib so flavorful my friend found himself sucking the bones. The one disappointment was a stuffed pork chop topped with crabmeat and asparagus, which was filled with an oversalted mixture of artichoke hearts, plum tomatoes, and oreganato breading.
The menu offers several lobster dishes. We tried “angry lobster”—not the famous David Burke creation but a dish Lena learned twenty years ago at Ponti Brothers in New York City. A whole lobster, chopped into chunks, is sautéed in olive oil and red hot pepper flakes and served over linguine. It was tender, spicy, and delicious. Also excellent was tuna served Provençal style, topped with tomatoes, capers, and artichoke hearts.
In another nod to tradition, desserts are presented on a platter. I tried the beautiful, extra-tall Napoleon, oozing lemon custard and topped with crème anglaise and roasted almonds. It tasted as good as it looked. Crème brulee was also a hit, with its thicker-than-usual caramelized sugar crust. Ricotta cheesecake was authentically Italian in that it wasn’t very sweet. The brownie, on the other hand, was gloriously sweet: two triangles of rich bittersweet chocolate brownies topped with nuts and hot fudge sauce.