259 Johnson Avenue
River Edge, Bergen County, New Jersey
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:
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Alcohol: License; active bar scene
Handicapped Accessible: No