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259 Johnson Avenue
River Edge, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 342-1233

By The Artful Diner
August 25, 2003

Before we were married, my wife and I would often stop in at Boodles -- Dinallo's former incarnation -- grab a burger or other casual fare and give a listen to the folk singers who held court in the small dining room upstairs. Once the current occupant appeared on the scene, we gladly settled in to enjoy the robust Italian fare and ever-convivial atmosphere. Thus, our relationship with this popular, pulsating eatery goes back over two decades.

Knowing this restaurant as well as I do, therefore, I was somewhat perplexed -- and more than a little peeved -- when I happened upon Marge Perry's less than appetizing review in The Record several years ago (2/9/01). And while it is certainly true that professional hired bellies have been known to disagree dramatically with regard to their assessments of various and sundry chophouses, this particular culinary commentary struck me as cruel and unusual punishment.

Ms. Perry, it seems, wasn't terribly fond of the food -- "mediocre" is how she described it -- but a veritable legion of other issues raised her ire as well: She was put off by the low ceilings, the dim lighting, the smoking, jostling crowd at the bar, the close proximity of tables, the noise. Even the decorative arrangements -- "walls cluttered with an odd collection of photographs" -- succeeded in putting her nose out of joint.

I've been present at numerous happy hours when Dinallo's is running full tilt, and, trust me, the place has a personality all its own. There are, of course, numerous adjectives that Ms. Perry might have utilized to paint the scene... cheerful, clubby, festive, lively, tumultuous... all of which would have been right on the money. She chose, however to put into play a word with the most negative and derogatory connotations possible: "Claustrophobic."

But something was strangely amiss here; she was obviously puzzled. Despite the dark, crowded ambiance, which she so completely despised, and the chow, which she apparently found so objectionable... "Who were all these people smiling, laughing, shouting to be heard by their friends, and seemingly having a great time?" she asked incredulously. Who, indeed? By her own admission, everyone WAS having a great time... Everyone BUT Ms. Perry that is. And so it would appear that her critique tells us infinitely more about one hired belly's fancies and phobias than it does about the possible sins and shortcomings of a restaurant called Dinallo's.

But, hey, I've been wrong before. I freely admit it. Sometimes time marches on, a cyclone hits the kitchen, an eatery begins a downward spiral, and all bets are off. I hadnt put in an appearance since Ms. Perry penned her review... perhaps things had changed, and not for the better. Why not give a colleague the benefit of a doubt?

And so, to satisfy my curiosity (and in preparation for this review), I decided to check out my old haunt. Well, the jury is in, so to speak, and I must confess that, after several recent sojourns, Ms. Perry strikes me as something of a wet blanket. I would also humbly suggest that she probably suffers from that peculiar myopic malady that often afflicts restaurant critics: She is quite adept at spotting the trees, but the forest seems to escape her.

I make this latter assertion because Dinallo's is really two restaurants in one. And until you understand that fact, you really don't understand Dinallo's. The bar is the bar, and the dining room is the dining room, and, with apologies to Mr. Kipling, "never the twain shall meet."

If you plop down at the former, especially during a crowded weekday lunch, you will go mano a mano with Ms. Motorcycle (whose hefty Harley is parked right outside the front door), the chatty bartender whose wardrobe is obviously selected to accentuate her pleasing bodily proportions. Ms. Motorcycle is also not averse to playing musical chairs with her customers, warning patrons in advance that they may have to shift around to accommodate new arrivals. Once permanently perched, you will encounter a host of middle management types with a gaggle of cell phones at the ready, as well as illustrious representatives of the local waste management corporation.

At happy hour, expect to rub eyeballs with nurses from the Hackensack University Medical Center, upper middle management types trying to hit on their administrative assistants, administrative assistants trying to hit on their bosses, and still more illustrious representatives of the local waste management corporation... You may also expect Ms. Motorcycle to spend infinitely more time jabbering on the phone than she does dispensing libations.

Oh, well... It's all part of the scene. So come with a well-developed sense of humor, sit back, suck on a martini, and engage in a spirited session of people watching.

The dining room, on the other hand, is a galaxy far, far away. If you think the habitués populating the bar area are a festive, friendly lot, the crowd assembled here will strike you as a full-blown family reunion. There's a more mature clientele in residence, and the atmosphere is gregariously Old World. Everyone comes to have a good time and, for the most part, they succeed admirably... including the servers, all savvy, battle-scarred veterans who freely join in the repartee.

But on to the food... As noted above, Marge Perry described it as "mediocre" (and even those dishes that were judged acceptable she appeared to damn with faint praise), but I strongly disagree. The retro Italian presentations don't set any new culinary standards, but the ingredients are extremely fresh, they are generally well-prepared, and they are served up in soul-satisfying proportions at moderate tariffs. In short, the cuisine is exactly what one would expect to find in such a casual, clamorous environment.

The salmon ($20.00), for example, is simply grilled, marvelously moist, and escorted to table by an armada of perfectly roasted potatoes. A delicate, flaky filet of lemon sole ($20.00) is bathed in a light scampi sauce and crowned with seasoned breadcrumbs. Shrimp ($25.00) appears in a variety of appetizing incarnations.

And meatier matters are also not neglected. Veal is a specialty at Dinallo's and always a solid choice. The scaloppine alla sorrentina ($22.00) -- prepared with eggplant & prosciutto, topped with mozzarella, and finished with tomato sauce -- is fork-tender, alive with flavor, and will surely necessitate the ministrations of a doggy bag. The parmigiana di vitello ($20.00) is also gratifyingly copious of countenance. This menu mainstay is as elementary as it gets; but, once again, it is the fresh ingredients and the care in preparation that push all the right buttons.

There are also several standouts among the pastas. The filetto di pomodoro ($14.00) -- rigatoni tossed with flesh plum tomato sauce, onion, and prosciutto -- is very basic and very good. The same may be said for the rigatoni commingled with sautéed broccoli rabe and Italian sausage ($16.00). And the penne con rucola ($14.00) provides the palate with a delightful point/counterpoint: the peppery bitterness of arugula assuaged by a mellifluous mélange of melting mozzarella. Fortunately, pastas may also be ordered in half-portions as appetizers.

And speaking of starters... The salads are positively pristine -- fresh, crisp greenery and a host of equally appealing accoutrements -- and all make first-rate preludes. They also sport a series of featherweight dressings that succeed in invigorating rather than intimidating your taste buds. Particularly noteworthy is the insalata di rucola. Arugula accompanied by gaeta olives, roasted peppers, and creamy goat cheese ($9.00).

... And you can finish things off as auspiciously as you began by indulging in a luscious slice of homemade ricotta cheesecake ($6.00) and potent cup of espresso ($2.75).

Meanwhile, back at The Record... Marge Perry is, of course, entitled to her opinion. I have always felt, however, that a restaurant should be evaluated on the basis of what it is rather than on the basis of what a particular critic would like it to be. And it is precisely here, I believe, that she is in error.

Dinallo's is a festive, energetic, congenial concern where people come to eat & drink, meet & greet, and forget about their troubles for a time. And the hearty, well-prepared Italian fare is surely commensurate with that environment. If Ms. Perry is in search of more creative cuisine and/or more sedate surroundings, there are numerous establishments in the area that should fill the bill quite nicely.

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Lunch & Dinner: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sat, 12 noon - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 1:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; active bar scene
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: No

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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