My heart goes out to well-meaning, modern chefs like Chris Calabrese who open places like Nettie’s House of Spaghetti with a Southern Italian bent. While there’s room in this world for heaps of chicken parm blanketed in molten cheese, that’s just not Nettie’s. As one Yelper noted, leaping to its defense, Nettie’s isn’t trying to be the Olive Garden.
I hope Calabrese’s zucchini parmigiana will convince people of the power of restraint. At the Tinton Falls restaurant, zucchini is sliced as thin as lasagna noodles and layered with just enough cheese and a bright, house tomato sauce for structure and flavor. The result is delicate and elegant—not words usually associated with Jersey parmigianas.
In 2018, Calabrese and his wife, Tania, took over Luigi’s, a restaurant and bar since 1959. They shed the Formica, glamorized the bar and created a vibe Calabrese calls “Art Deco meets Italian tavern.” His goal was to make Italian restaurant eating more like the way his wife and he eat at home: big and small plates, with many flavors, to share. He’s since attracted a following of Monmouth County chefs and restaurant workers.
Standouts included log-shaped arancini (not the traditional orb). Result? A favorable increase in crunchy exterior relative to warm, cheesy interior. Minimally sauced meatballs were crusty and caramelized, delicately showcasing meat and parsley inside.
The chef has a heart for vegetarians (his wife is one), and the vegetable-focused appetizers were nearly all worthwhile, especially the meltingly soft roasted fennel on housemade ricotta, crowned with parsley gremolata.
I had to be convinced by my guests to order the fresh mozzarella. Around the Garden State, everyone and their nonna makes it fresh, right? True as that may be, not as many manage to produce mozzarella with the same creamy, melting qualities of Nettie’s.
Spaghetti arrabiata had a fresh-tasting red sauce touched with butter that balanced the heat of the Calabrian chilies. Others at my table liked the simple carbonara, the mango-yellow, egg-based sauce courtesy of some local chickens. This carbonara, lighter than most, let its few ingredients shine. (Having grown-up with my mother’s carbonara, a more buttery, cheesy version she learned from a lovely lady in Milan in the 1960s, I found Nettie’s on the bland side.) Tortellini stuffed with mortadella, prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano floated in a mild broth. It would be as at home in Emilia-Romagna as it was in Tinton Falls.
There were missteps. Baked clams were all about breadcrumbs; my guests and I made a game of finding the clams. Nettie’s chicken Savoy was the wrong side of pink the night we had it, and the vinegar sauce was wan. (However, it was served with a clever fried-to-order breaded confit of chicken leg.) Another evening, the spaghetti in clam sauce was watery and shudderingly gritty. (It has since been replaced with an intriguing-sounding spicy squid in tomato brodo pasta.) We also were served a link of housemade fennel sausage that had burst its seams and dried out.
Desserts follow the simple-is-better formula. Pillowy bomboloni redolent of warm yeast and sugar were served with olive oil-enhanced whipped cream. The Sicilian orange cake, with its dense crumb and sticky orange glaze, was the star (especially when eaten with whipped cream from the bomboloni).
Calabrese’s small-plate approach is a welcome break with Italian-American tradition. Bring people who love to share, and enjoy the varied wine list and each other’s company. For all my quibbles, my guests and I always left Nettie’s in a jolly mood. The combination of good food, happy staff and convivial atmosphere will do that.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Italian
- Price Range:Inexpensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $7–$14; entrées, $11–$23; desserts, $9–$11
- Ambience:Welcoming and cozy chic
- Wine list:Creative (if weak) cocktails; small but solid wine list, 17 by the glass; 13 beers