Biagio Schiano understands why people might find Mossuto’s “a little strange.” The place he and his sister run in Wall Township is, after all, an Italian market, bakery, butcher shop, deli, pizzeria, bar—and a restaurant with seriously good food.
Wall, between Belmar and Brielle, isn’t a beach town, but it is a Shore town. As such, the informal, family-friendly vibe of Mossuto’s fits right in. Indeed, the restaurant to Schiano’s way of thinking, is perfect for customers “who want to eat fine dining while hanging out in their shorts.”
The layout is unusual, because it began as Schiano’s father’s market, A&S Italian Specialties. You enter, pass a few small tables on your left, and emerge in the middle of the market, with its shelves, butcher and deli counters, and a bar with seats that face the deli counter and the kitchen behind it. The bar wraps around to the dining room on the right, which holds the wood-burning brick oven imported from Italy. All told, there are 120 seats, with wooden chairs, small tables and cafeteria-style silverware. Still, the welcome is warm, each place is set with a large cloth napkin, and the food is simple, traditional and satisfying.
What makes Mossuto’s special is the quality of its ingredients and the loving care that Schiano, 40, the chef/owner, and his sister, Rosella Schiano Romano, 47, and their cooks put into everything they make. Next door, they bake several types of crusty bread, not from commercial yeast, but from starter that has been alive longer than some of the children who eat the sandwiches made with the bread.
Schiano or his cooks make silky mozzarella by hand several times a day. He goes to Italy two or three times a year to buy extra-virgin olive oil from a superb producer he knows in Calabria. He visits wineries, tasting, choosing. He visits his tomato packer to buy the best available San Marzanos. “I know exactly where they come from,” he told me.
Using imported Caputo flour—the gold standard for puffy-crust Neapolitan pizza—Mossuto’s makes authentic Neapolitan pies in the oak-fueled oven. (Schiano, whose family owns pizzerias in Italy, studied pizza making in Naples in 2011 and 2012.) The menu lists two kinds, both Neapolitan. You can add toppings to those on the Pizza Italiana list, while the Pizza Napoletana pies are traditional and not to be monkeyed with. We tried a Bianca, a white pie on the Italiana list—just fresh mozz, basil, olive oil. From the Napoletana list we tried a Margherita—a Bianca with canned whole San Marzanos. Surprisingly, the white pie had a spongier crust; the Margherita’s was crisper, which I preferred. Schiano explained that water in the whole tomatoes seeps into the dough, turns to steam and thereby lifts and firms the crust.
The signature pie is the Fat Lip, a Napoletana made with fresh tomatoes, garlic, mozz, imported sharp Provolone and pickled red peppers grown in South Jersey. The pie, like the restaurant, is named for Schiano’s paternal great-grandfather, whose first name was Luigi.
“There were so many Luigis in the town my family’s from—Monte di Procida, on the Gulf of Naples—that each Luigi had a nickname,” Schiano said. “My great-grandfather had a fat lip, and the local dialect for that was Mossuto.”
Schiano buys antibiotic-free Angus beef from Colorado and dry ages it in-house. “It has great marbling because it’s a cold-weather animal,” he said. “I don’t like Texas beef; the marbling isn’t the same because it’s a hot-weather animal.”
I ordered the 16-to-18-ounce bone-in rib eye. Sprinkled with Sicilian sea salt, it is cooked on a gas grill, then moved to a hot buttered pan for seasoning and searing in the wood-burning oven. My steak came rare, as requested, and sizzling. Much of its marbled fat had melted into the loose-grained flesh, eliciting that wonderful cheesy quality reminiscent of blue cheese melting on a good burger. It came with sautéed broccoli rabe and terrific red potatoes that are boiled, smashed and put in the pan with the steak, where they pick up the hot seasoned butter and meat juices. Altogether, the dish justified its $40 price tag.
Excellent sweet fennel sausage, house-made from organic pork, is baked in an iron skillet in the wood-burning oven with garlicky white beans and broccoli rabe for a memorable entrée. Portions are satisfying, not excessive. There are also good shrimp scampi; cod oreganata; and risotto with shrimp, asparagus and truffle oil. One night we enjoyed a salad special of lacinato kale, farro and house-made ricotta salata.
Homage is paid to Italian-American favorites such as Caesar salad; linguine with clams or garlic and oil; and spaghetti and meatballs. Every one of those I ate—from a linguine puttanesca to organic chicken parm with a vibrant San Marzano sauce over house-made penne—brought back my best food memories from childhood. (My Italian-American family ate pasta at least three times a week. To be honest, Mossuto’s versions are even better.)
Schiano and Romano, his sister, grew up working in their father’s market, A&S. Their parents, Vittorio and Maria, came to America in 1966, settled in Brooklyn and opened a pizzeria there in 1969.
Coming from a seaside town, they missed the ocean and moved to the Shore, buying Naples Pizzeria in Neptune in 1971. Vittorio eventually opened and sold a succession of pizzerias and a restaurant. But weary of restaurant hours, he bought 6.5 acres in Wall and in 1981 opened the A&S market in a small house on the property.
Biagio worked in local restaurants during high school. While earning a bachelor’s degree from NYU, he worked in New York restaurants. “They were cooking on a whole different level,” he told me. “I worked at Union Square Cafe alongside Michael Romano for three years. I learned French technique from him. That’s where I got my chops—that plus my heritage, my family background.”
After college, Schiano worked at A&S. In 2003, father and son built a strip mall on the property and tore down the house that held the market. But their visions clashed. Vittorio wanted to be a landlord and collect rent. “I had to fight hard to retain part of the strip mall for Mossuto’s,” Schiano said. “My father was pissed for a good couple years. But I wanted to build our legacy.”
The new enterprise, now called Mossuto’s, had just five small tables, for which the wait was long. Finally, in 2011, Schiano expanded it to its present size. In 2013, he closed Mossuto’s for a week and took 13 of its employees to Naples and Tuscany to visit restaurants, vineyards, the Caputo flour plant and other food shrines. “It paid off huge,” Schiano told me, “because now they know what I’m talking about.”
Visit Mossuto’s and you, too, will be enlightened. Stay for dessert. The light, crumbly texture of the Italian cheesecake and the pleasing graininess of the cannoli filling are both attributable to the house-made ricotta (the latter not whipped smooth by machine and not Americanized with chocolate chips). At this time of year, not only can you wear shorts indoors or out, but for a final authentic Italian touch, you can play bocce in the court beside the building.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $6-$15; entrées, $13-$40; desserts, $10.
Ambience:No-frills dining areas wrapped around a brimming Italian market.
Wine list:22 by the glass, all but one Italian, $6 to $20; moderately priced bottle list; full bar; craft and Italian beers on tap.
Mossuto’s Market & Cafe2029 NJ-35 #4
Wall Township, NJ 07719
Hours:Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 pm. Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 4 pm; Sunday, 11 am to 3 pm. Note: Pizzas, salads and small items available Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 5 pm.