The namesake of Uncle Vinnie's Clam Bar in Raritan is long gone. But good fresh seafood, reports Sam Kadko, is very much what you do find at Uncle Vinnie's.
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The reason the seafood at Uncle Vinnie’s Clam Bar in Raritan is always pristine is that it comes from Vinnie’s Market down the street. Not surprisingly, both places are owned by the same couple, Lois and Chris Ricci. As for Vinnie, he is believed to have been kin to the restaurant’s long-ago original owner.
Lois, 28, used to waitress and tend bar at Vinnie’s when she was a college student earning a degree in art history. After she and Chris, 30, bought the place in 2007, they realized they needed more storage and prep space. Their solution, a mite ambitious for two people getting their feet wet in the restaurant business, was to open a seafood market.
The market, Lois says, was about “giving Chris something to do. Chris runs the fish market, I run the restaurant, and this keeps us both happy—and married.”
The moment you enter Vinnie’s, you know you’re in a restaurant that prides itself on its seafood. Blue walls are bathed in blue light, evoking, along with the deck-like wood floors, the ocean and the day’s fresh catch.
The basic, moderately priced Italian-style dishes and daily specials are the handiwork of the six-plus-year veteran kitchen team of Gerardo Ramos and Artemio Perez. In two pleasing littleneck clam appetizers—steamed in broth or prepared oreganata (topped with herbed crumbs, then broiled on the half shell), the tender mollusks’ mild brininess came through vivaciously. My companions split regarding the fried calamari tossed with balsamic vinegar and blue cheese. All agreed the tender ringlets were expertly fried, but some (myself included) felt the aggressive dressing overwhelmed the subtle squid.
The kitchen turns out excellent, and generous, seafood salads. One featuring thinly sliced scungilli tossed with fresh greens in lemon-herb vinaigrette was so winning, it inspired us to try the mixed seafood salad of shrimp, calamari, scungilli, clams and mussels. Allergy concerns prompted a request that the last two ingredients be omitted, which was honored without fuss.
Zuppe di pesce, presented as a pasta dish, not a hearty seafood soup as the name implied, was marred by too much of a good thing, namely marinara sauce that overwhelmed both the linguine and faultlessly cooked seafood. Other entrées, such as shrimp oreganata with broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic and olive oil, were deftly prepared. Three Valentine’s Day specials were especially pleasing. Sautéed monkfish, perfectly moist and delicious, was amicably matched with zesty puttanesca sauce, although the latter had too many olives in the mix. A large slice of meaty blackened swordfish was spiced just right. The evening’s star, red snapper, was broiled whole—a 3 ½-pound beauty, moist to the bone, justifying the belief of many chefs that fish is more flavorful when cooked on the bone. Al dente linguine tossed in the aromatic, wine-infused snapper broth rounded out this masterpiece.
Desserts aren’t really a specialty, but if one’s sweet tooth acts up, a cannoli filled with a house-made mixture of sweetened ricotta followed by good espresso provides a fine finish.
Great variety, let alone anything trendy, will not be found at Uncle Vinnie’s. Lois Ricci explains the restaurant’s guiding principle: “Do what you know well. We do fish and we do it well.”
5 East Somerset Street
FOOD: Italian AMBIENCE: Informal; noisy when busy SERVICE: Congenial, efficient, helpful WINE LIST: Modest selection, reasonably priced, plus full bar