Restaurant Review

Spiaggetta

This Stone Harbor seafood joint is at it’s best when it makes you feel you’re at the beach.­

Spiaggetta calls itself a seafood trattoria, not just because it’s on the Shore. Owner Marco Tarantino, born and raised in Rome, worked summers on the fishing docks of nearby Ladispoli on the Tyrrhenian Sea, bringing home seafood for his mother and grandmother to cook. Later, as an army lieutenant stationed in the town of Bracciano, he picked up the rustic cooking of the Roman countryside. Coming to the U.S. in 1983, he worked his way up while in college from dishwasher to busboy to waiter to maître d’ at Italian restaurants outside Philadelphia.

In 2004, Tarantino and a partner opened Solé, a traditional Italian-American red-sauce restaurant in Stone Harbor. In 2011, Tarantino bought out his partner and closed Solé. In 2012 he reopened in the same space with a new name, Spiaggetta, and a new menu focused on seafood and the cooking of Rome. “I wanted to get away from the usual Italian restaurant down the Shore,” he told me in a phone call after my visits.

Spiaggetta, meaning “little beach,” is not so little: It has 120 seats on the ground floor and a banquet room upstairs that seats 100. Also not little is the tab, but at least the quality is high. Tarantino and executive chef Thomas Devine  buy only whole fish, making a rich stock from the heads and bones. It powers dishes like cioppino, the Italian fish stew. Fillets are anointed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and grilled. “You don’t need to do much to get flavor from good fish,” Tarantino said.

Grilled sea bass comes with spinach pesto and a tomato-basil compote. A lemon vinaigrette brightens grilled salmon. Spiaggetta’s tastiest pairing is delicate branzino with orange-chardonnay reduction and mascarpone polenta cake.

Tarantino flavors shellfish more aggressively than finfish. “They can handle more assertive flavors,” he explained. He steams mussels in Yuengling lager and stirs in pungent Gorgonzola, spicy chorizo and saffron for a thick, invigorating stew.

Tarantino follows his mother’s recipe for supplí, the Roman version of the familiar Sicilian rice balls known as arancini. Supplí must be eaten carefully—they have molten middles of meat sauce and mozzarella.

Pappardelle, done cacio e pepe-style, was tossed with Pecorino and some of the starchy water it was cooked in, and finished with course-ground black pepper. Tarantino’s riff on this staple adds shrimp marinated in lemon and lime juice. Other Roman dishes rotate as specials, like tripe alla Romana (in tomato sauce); semolina gnocchi; and coda alla vaccinara, an oxtail stew.

Spiaggetta’s octopus isn’t grilled—a method Tarantino associates with Greek cooking. He simmers them whole for at least two hours, cuts the tentacles into gnocchi-sized pieces and serves them chilled as the highlight of a salad of farro, citrus-marinated olives and tomatoes. The tender pieces taste of lemon, thyme and the sea, a perfect opener for a Shore dinner.

Fritto misto brings together an unusual combination of fried calamari, salmon and artichoke hearts. Before frying, the squid are coated with flour and cornmeal, the salmon slices and artichoke hearts with pastella, a mixture of flour, water, beer and club soda that puffs up nicely in the fryer.

Tarantino’s 75-year-old mother-in-law, Vincenza Casce, makes Spiaggetta’s ravioli, gnocchi, fettuccine and pappardelle daily. She fills her ravioli with shredded scallops and shrimp. They’re served in a sauce of puréed red peppers and mascarpone. You eat them feeling like Roman royalty.

For all its regional specificity, Spiaggetta does not reject its American roots. A menu section called Classics offers four sentimental favorites: chicken parmigiana, meatballs with cheese ravioli marinara, rigatoni with sausage in Aurora (tomato-cream) sauce, and fettuccine Alfredo. The chicken parm, the cutlet hammered thin and breaded, comes loaded with a marvelous marinara sauce. Even if you think you’ve outgrown such red-sauce relics, it’s immensely satisfying.

Why does Tarantino offer these classics? Diners still crave them. “My job,” he says, “is to make people as happy as possible and bring them back.”

Traditional desserts like cannoli and tiramisu are made in-house, but they aren’t Spiaggetta’s strong suit. As its name suggests, it’s best when it makes you feel you’re at the beach.­

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    European - Italian
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Spiaggetta
    9800 3rd Ave
    Stone Harbor, NJ 08247
  • Reservations:
    not needed
  • Hours:
    Monday 5:00 – 9:00 pm;
    Tuesday 5:00 – 9:00 pm;
    Wednesday 5:00 – 9:00 pm;
    Thursday 5:00 – 9:00 pm;
    Friday 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
    Saturday 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
    Sunday 5:00 – 9:00 pm
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