Ben and Katie Sanford had a vision of what they wanted to introduce to their tiny Mercer County borough of Pennington: “We like getting away, going into the city and enjoying not only the food, but also the ambience, the music, the scene,” she says. “We wanted to bring that city vibe to a small town.”
Achieving that goal took several years and involved relocating their original Italian market, securing Pennington’s single liquor license, more than doubling the size of their business, and opening an upscale restaurant last December amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, while Katie was pregnant with twins.
“It’s been a journey; I could definitely write a book about all that we’ve gone through,” says Katie, 33, who for years nursed a dream board of ideas for what would become the 75-seat Boro Restaurant Bar, based on restaurants she and her husband visited.
The dining room features tables with candles and white tablecloths, as well as high-tops, some of which face part of the open kitchen. Globe lights hang from the high ceiling, and French doors lead to a stone patio where another 20 seats are available in good weather. But the focal point is the sleek, 11-seat bar, with its gray concrete top and massive bouquet of flowers facing lighted shelves of bottles.
Here are crafted Boro’s fetching cocktails, like the aptly named Remedy, combining vodka, Aperol, honey and lemon. Or the beautiful Locals Only, a stein layered with dark rum, falernum, pineapple and absinthe, topped with a slice of dried pineapple.
The menu, created by Katie and executed by chef Jason Santillo, formerly at the Philadelphia Union League, favors local sources, like the honey in the whipped butter that accompanies a basket of crusty bread, or the peaches that in summer topped the thick-cut pork chop.
Among starters we liked were two variations on bruschetta: panel toasts sporting puffy swirls of house-made whipped ricotta topped with crispy basil and candied lemon peel; and salmon rillettes, crusty bread topped with wild-salmon salad, garnished with fried capers and dill.
The mussels-and-cockles appetizer featured delicately cooked shellfish in a garlic, coconut and saffron broth. Less appealing were two fried appetizers: crispy chicken, overcooked (though the honey-Calabrian-chili sauce was bracing); and calamari, overwhelmed by bits of fried pepperoncini and bacon. But the standout was silky, sherry-infused crab bisque, bursting with crab flavor and sporting a generous mound of lump crabmeat.
Though this is the Sanfords’ first full-scale restaurant, Ben and Katie say they have each been in the hospitality business for more than 20 years. Ben owned Cugino’s Italian Market at the Pennington Circle, featuring Italian deli items and prepared dishes. In 2015, they moved Cugino’s to the current location. With plans to add a restaurant, they purchased Pennington’s only liquor license at that time, though it would be another four years before it could be put to use.
Between dealing with borough officials, the landlord and architects, and being slowed down by the pandemic, it wasn’t until late last year that they were ready to open Boro—not especially ideal, Ben notes, since the public was still largely in lockdown mode.
“Times were dire,” says Ben, 39. “We’d been paying out all this money over the years on construction and loans, and seeing no return. We knew as soon as we could get the doors open, we would.” Trying to reach a broad audience, the menu features a number of gluten-free and vegan options, as well as a kids menu.
“We wanted to be sure we weren’t scaring people away with being upscale,” says Katie, a mother of four, including twins who were born five months after the restaurant opened.
The vegan and gluten-free cauliflower gnocchi had a nice bite and were enhanced by a creamy, involving leek-and-cognac sauce.
While sophistication may be the goal, the Sanfords say their most popular entrée is the burger. It’s a perfectly grilled patty of LaFrieda ground-brisket blend, dripping with melted cheddar and caramelized onions. The tasty skin-on branzino offered a flaky fillet, but the side of couscous was somewhat gummy. The four pan-seared sea scallops were a bit undercooked, though I wanted to lick up all the underlying truffle oil–infused pea purée.
The zeppoli are a good way to conclude: a paper bag filled with five hot fried dumplings, served with caramel dipping sauce. The cheesecake was another winner, not too sweet and topped with a tart fresh-blueberry compote. Gluten-free vegan pound cake was dull and dry, unredeemed by a soak in Nutella-flavored liqueur. For those without dietary restrictions, the crackly-topped brownie with mascarpone and raspberries is a winning choice.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Continental
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Small plates and salads, $11–$16; pastas and mains, $17–$33; desserts, $9-$10
- Ambience:Accessible, urban-chic
- Service:Familial and personable
- Wine list:Full bar; signature cocktails