42 First Avenue
Atlantic Highlands, Monmouth County, New Jersey
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
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.
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
Parking: Street parking; nearby municipal lot
Handicapped Accessible: yes