“Why did the restaurant cross the bridge?” asks Pizzicato’s website. “So South Jersey residents don’t have to.” Translation? Pizzicato, a Philadelphia restaurant, first came over to Marlton, on our side of the Delaware, in 2003. Now it has opened a second suburban branch at the Moorestown Mall. I appreciate owner Giampaolo Duva’s altruism, but South Jersey needs another Italian restaurant like it needs another property-tax hike. Fortunately, Pizzicato, which means “a little pinch,” does some things well enough to merit addition to your red-white-and-green roster.
Pizzicato’s menu is a collaboration between Rich Scavetti, chef at Marlton for five years before coming to Moorestown, and corporate executive chef Vince Tancredi. “We’re hardly corporate, though,” laughs Scavetti. “We go back and forth developing recipes together.”
Whoever is responsible, there’s no denying the allure of the lemony, egg-battered, fried artichoke hearts with zippy horseradish cream. Ditto the pear salad, rescued from the blahs by a musky honey-apple-lavender vinaigrette. Firm meatballs rang out with serious flavor; Scavetti folds currants and pine nuts into the freshly ground veal, plated over rustic pomodoro sauce, for a Sicilian spin.
Wood-burning ovens anchor the Philly and Marlton Pizzicatos, and Moorestown follows suit with a brick behemoth that turns out some terrific pizzas. I wouldn’t lay the Fontina, Provolone, Gorgonzola and mozzarella so thick on the quattro formaggi pie, but the lively acidity in the soft, green-skinned slices of pear (an extra dollar, and a must) neutralized the cheesy richness. A shower of fresh parsley did the same for the stinky (in a good way) Taleggio-topped, truffle oil-drizzled funghi pizza, so named for the mix of local cremini, portobello and shiitake mushrooms. Crisped bits of Tuscan salami in the Romano pizza winningly updated classic pepperoni. (Could have done without the overcooked sunnyside egg, though, a popular pizza flourish so few get right.)
Pasta is not a Moorestown strength. Chef Rich Scavetti makes many of the cuts in house, and the noodles and dumplings are lovely—so lovely, it’s a shame how often they were saddled with overwrought sauces. I’ll make exception for chef Scavetti’s eggplant involtini, an inside-out bundle of tender pan-fried eggplant slices, spinach, mozzarella and ricotta over linguine in bright, chunky tomato sauce. That dish, however, is more about the eggplant than the noodles. Consider the soft gnocchi al telefono, gobbed up with too much mozzarella. In a baked pasta with lobster, jagged spikes of penne poked from the casserole’s browned, breadcrumbed surface, while below lurked overcooked hunks of lobster and a soupy Parmesan, mozzarella and Taleggio cream sauce.
These weren’t the only disappointments. The 14-ounce porcini-crusted strip steak was undersalted before it hit the pan, and nothing could redeem the accompaniments—balsamic-drowned, undercooked cippollini onions, oily sautéed spinach and confetti-colored fingerlings that lacked all-important crisp skin. A stuffed pork chop special was dry and had been hollowed out and filled with spinach, walnuts (some still whole) and Gorgonzola. The ratio of filling to pork was so lopsided, my dinner guest observed, “It’s more like spinach wrapped in skin.”
Compare that overwrought disaster to the beauty of Pizzicato’s whole-roasted branzino. The silver-skinned Mediterranean sea bass is no stranger to trattoria menus up and down the Turnpike, but Scavetti’s version, stuffed with lemon and thyme, salt-crusted and roasted in the oak-burning oven, was among the best I’ve had: sweet, fresh, dewy with citrus and olive oil. “Would you like the skin?” asked the restaurant’s manager, Joe Evangelista, as he filleted the fish in minutes flat. As if that’s even a question.
The arrival of a silver tray laden with sample desserts that looked old enough to occupy a wax museum wasn’t the best omen for the finale, but surprisingly, Pizzicato excelled. The desserts, all made by Scavetti, come direct from the kitchen, not the cart. “I worked at a restaurant [in Fort Lauderdale] called Primavera,” he relates. “The chef was from Northern Italy, and he basically was the person who showed me the right way to bake.”
That instruction has paid off. Think thick apple tarts laced with Calvados Anglaise; silky chocolate-chip brioche bread pudding; crisp chocolate-banana spring rolls; and fudgy flourless chocolate torte. Some are served with brandy-and-Cointreau-marinated kumquats that play particularly well with anything chocolate. “It’s things like that that make the difference,” Scavetti says. Kumquats at the mall? It’s about time.