Ah, tableside service—so elegant, so deft, so…Roberto Benigni? You remember, of course, the sweetly bumbling Italian comic who clambered over celebrity-filled seats to accept his 1998 Oscar for Life Is Beautiful. I think of him as our waiter presents to one of my companions a whole grilled fish on a silver platter and, bending low, proceeds to make the filleting seem more complicated than brain surgery. Every time the rest of us, who already have our food, are about to reach for our forks, some phase of the operation recommences. If only the poor waiter were trying to be funny, he would deserve an Oscar.
The food, when we finally taste it, is good. Yet the waiter’s performance isn’t the only odd lapse encountered during two visits to Chef Nunzio Patruno’s popular two-year-old restaurant, which has helped make Collingswood a hip dining destination. A bowl of intensely flavorful shrimp-and-crab bisque arrives tepid and must be reheated. More bizarre is an order of linguini with white clam sauce—a half-dozen juicy steamed clams with virtually no sauce—served when Nunzio’s is packed with well over 100 patrons plus a dozen more waiting in the vestibule; the next time I order it, when the place is almost empty, it has returned from the Twilight Zone, replete with the requisite flavors of white wine, garlic, oil, parsley and pepper.
That grilled fish is barramundi, a white-fleshed freshwater species described by our waiter as Australian—true, but the hatchlings are flown from Australia to Massachusetts, raised in an ecologically enlightened indoor facility, and sold to restaurants for about $5 a pound; the fish, smothered in a very fresh and tasty tomato sauce, is a special, for which Nunzio’s charges $30. Another $30 special is a very satisfying osso buco. The problem: These aren’t high-cost items for the kitchen, and in neither case did the waiter mention that the special cost about $10 more than the menu entrées. Yes, we should have asked, but I still feel sandbagged.
These mostly front-of-the-house foibles are especially regrettable, given the chef/owner’s passion for the food of his native Puglia and the rustic tradition in Italian cooking. The conservative menu showcases the adaptability of the tomato, but the kitchen also turns out sumptuous porcini risotto and a faultless arugula salad with lemon dressing, prosciutto chips, and shaved Parmesan.
The desserts are all too familiar, but one fine classic is the vanilla panna cotta topped with caramelized orange peel and fresh fruit; the thick custard beautifully sets up the bittersweet orange peel for a flavor combination I would clamber over chairs to get to.
Reviewed in: January, 2006Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:European - Italian
- Price Range:Moderate
- Ambience:Charming trompe l’oeil mural
- Service:Eager but absent-minded
- Wine list:BYO