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42 First Avenue
Atlantic Highlands, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 872-3309

By The Artful Diner
November 12, 2007

Unlike many restaurants in the area, chef/proprietor John Mandica's Gianna's doesn't seem to garner a great deal of press. Perhaps this is because Mr. Mandica serves up Italian cuisine, and the Garden State's peripatetic professional hired belly brigade tends to keep its collective noise to the ground, ever sniffing out the latest unconventional glitch on gastronomic radar screen. Gianna's may very well be Atlantic Highlands best-kept secret, but it is a secret that is surely worthy of discovery.

The restaurant's interior is a cozy, intimate space, boasting exposed brick walls, dark woods, and a diminutive bar at the rear (Gianna's is BYOB), where coffee and espresso are brewed. There is also a comfortable patio for al fresco dining in warmer weather.

The food is lusty and robust, and many of the staples of northern and southern Italian cookery are present and accounted for. Be that as it may, dishes are hardly standard issue; all are carefully prepared with fresh ingredients, nicely presented, and plenteously proportioned. You're not likely leave hungry.

The bruschetta ($10.00), for example, is an extravagantly generous opening move. Four crostini are topped with melted mozzarella and arranged like the spokes of a wheel on a bed of fresh mixed greens. The spaces between these "little toasts" are filled with diced Roma tomatoes tinctured with a flavorful herb-olive oil. The combination of colors, tastes, and textures is just right; and this is one appetizer that is most suitable for sharing.

The lightly fried calamari ($12.00) is another seductive starter. The diminutive rings are inordinately tender and may be requested with the usual accompaniment of marinara or adorned with the chef's signature balsamic-citrus sauce. if you have trouble making up your mind, trust me, take the staff's advice and go for the combo. You won't be disappointed.

The Caesar salad ($8.00) is good, though not terribly exciting... especially when there are so many other possibilities from which to choose. The broccoli rabe ($12.00), for instance. It is sautéed in garlic and oil, not at all chewy (the Achilles' heel of this particular vegetable), and partnered with its traditional sidekicks, crumbled sausage and white beans. Once again, more than ample for sharing.

Entrées are as plentiful as their predecessors. Those with hefty appetites can revel in the gargantuan chicken and eggplant Sorrento ($26.00). Lightly breaded chicken cutlets and tender slices of eggplant are sautéed and then layered with a Bolognese sauce and baked with a topping of marinara and mozzarella cheese. For a variation on the theme, the rigatoni alla Bolognese ($19.00) is less expansive but no less delicious. The al dente pasta is smothered in a rich, full-bodied ragù that is enhanced with just the proper touch of cream.

On the seafood front, puttanesca is always a popular presentation. The rendition of shrimp and salmon ($26.00) headlines crunchy, pan-seared crustaceans and a pristinely fresh salmon filet companioned by anchovies, capers, garlic, and olives in a zesty tomato sauce tossed with angel hair pasta. And the version incorporating red snapper is every bit as satisfying.

On the other hand, the sole Regina ($24.00) exhibits a lighter touch. Delicate filets are egg battered, gently sautéed with artichoke hearts, capers, and olives in a lemon-white wine sauce and presented on a seabed of spinach.

In several visits, however, the indisputable star of the show proved to be the special colossal veal chop ($39.00). Expensive, to be sure... but utterly superb. The meat was incredibly tender and flavorful and was set on a pillow of addictive garlic mashed potatoes. When this dish is available, it is simply not to be missed.

A tempting array of desserts offers a fitting conclusion to your evening at table. And the house-made cheesecakes ($8.00) are particularly noteworthy. The recently sampled butterscotch cheesecake, for example, was delightfully creamy and just sweet enough without being cloying. And a jolt of bitter, potent espresso ($2.50) offers the perfect counterpoint.

As I mentioned at the outset, Gianna's doesn't seem to generate a lot of press. No, it's one of those charming little gems that goes about the business of serving up generous portions of time-honored Italian favorites with quiet, unassuming competence. The cuisine here isn't about innovation... it's about tradition. What chef/proprietor John Mandica does in the kitchen he does exceedingly well. When you're in the area, a visit to this relaxed, agreeable establishment should definitely be on your dining agenda.

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Dinner: Tues, Weds & Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Thurs - Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: MC, V, Discover
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Suggested
Parking: Street parking; nearby municipal lot
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: yes
Website: www.giannasrestaurants.com

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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