Some will be relieved, others disappointed, that you won’t find branzino in chocolate cookie crust or a ricotta-chocolate croissant with blueberry jellybean caramel sauce at Tre Amici, though those dishes helped chef/owner Matthew Zappoli win Chopped two years ago. Neither will you find food flashed with frigid liquid nitrogen or made with other high-tech techniques Zappoli studied at the Culinary Institute of America and later applied at three restaurants owned by famed chef Charlie Palmer.
What you will find are beautifully prepared classic Italian dishes that Zappoli sometimes tweaks or updates, but not so much as to upset the regulars of his popular Long Branch BYO. Zappoli, who grew up in Middletown, relished practicing molecular gastronomy in the kitchens of Palmer’s Aureole restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.
“But that’s hard to do on an everyday menu at a BYO in Long Branch,” he said in a phone interview after my visits.
When Zappoli, his brother, Paul, and Michael Cacciuttolo—the “tre amici,” or three friends—took over the 15-year-old al Piccolo Forno in 2008, they cautiously added the words Tre Amici to the existing name, not wishing to ruffle regulars.
“It was a poor decision on my part,” Zappoli admitted. This summer the three dropped the original name, the better to establish Tre Amici’s own, more progressive, identity.
“I’m trying to be a little more risky,” Zappoli said. “You’re not going to find rabbit with truffles anywhere else around here. Then again, some people come in and just want chicken parmigiana.” It is, in fact, on the menu, as is eggplant parmigiana.
I encourage customers to venture beyond the old standbys, because Zappoli’s riskier dishes are among his best. Earthy rabbit agnolotti, for example—each square of pasta is filled with a mixture of smoked loin and rib meat, braised leg and flank and mascarpone, served in the reduced braising liquid fortified with truffle oil and topped with shaved black truffles. Kabocha squash gnocchi also expands on tradition, adding squash to the potatoey pillows and serving them with sautéed squash and a wild boar ragout.
Outstanding filet mignon carpaccio was drizzled with olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, given a dollop of olive tapenade and sprinkled with slivers of pickled red onions, capers and big crystals of black lava salt for a palpable crunch. Zappoli bumps up classic eggplant rolatini by smearing long eggplant slices with ricotta and mascarpone, rolling them up and frying them, crisping the outside while keeping the inside moist. Then he bakes the roll-ups in a tangy house marinara.
Less interesting starters included fried calamari with no hint of seasoning, served with a standard tomato sauce, and over-breaded stuffed shrimp with not enough garlicky scampi sauce.
The most enjoyable entrées we tried were perfectly pan-seared sea scallops over buttery shrimp risotto, and succulent rack of lamb in a crisp goat cheese, rosemary and chive crust. Braised in Barolo and demiglace, short ribs were sweet and tender and edged with bits of extra flavorful fat.
A butterflied, baked veal chop piccata suffered from dense breading and a tired caper and lemon sauce. Long Island Duck Two Ways delivered an invitingly moist confit leg but a dry, over-seared breast, though the blackberry compote sauce was fresh and delicious.
For dessert, house-made tiramisu gained complexity from Kahlua and Fra Angelica stirred into the mascarpone, with a pool of chocolate sauce underneath. The creaminess of a house-made, New York-style cheesecake was nicely offset by a crunchy graham cracker crust and a generous pool of fresh strawberry compote.
Too many pecan pies are cloyingly sweet, but that unfortunate tendency was smartly corralled in Tre Amici’s flaky-crust version by the simple addition of blood orange zest and a
Like the menu, the 120-seat dining room, proficiently run by Paul Zappoli, also a Palmer alumnus, is gradually being redefined. The recent addition of thick white curtains and planters helpfully divided the vast square space into more intimate zones.