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I Cavallini Ristorante
29 Highway 34
Colts Neck, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 431-2934

Note: 02/2007 - Chef Toni Froio is no longer cooking at I Cavallini. The Artful Diner will return for an update in the near future.

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com

The stately structure located just across the way from Delicious Orchards has been home to a number of diverse eateries, including an outpost of Ray's Seafood Restaurant, over the course of the years. But the current resident, I Cavallini Ristorante, has a decided note of permanence about it -- and this is especially evident since chef Toni Froio took over as the power behind the stove this past December (2004). Ms. Froio, a native of Bologna, Italy, who is undoubtedly best known for her celebrated culinary exploits at the Farmingdale House, continues to dazzle with her own unique brand of innovative yet homey Italian cuisine. Whatever your predilections -- meat, fish, or fowl -- you may be assured of a most rewarding evening at table.

Proprietors Lisa Cirillo and Elizabeth Rielly offer a warm welcome, and you will find the main (downstairs) dining area entirely commensurate with the casually elegant character of the cuisine. This is a cozy, comfortable (and sometimes bustling) space replete with rich dark wood and contrasting snow-white napery. Whether decked out in jeans or sartorial finery, one is certain to feel right at home here. The members of the wait staff, while occasionally appearing to be somewhat befuddled, are generally quite competent and proficient in the timely execution of their appointed tasks.

The arrival of fresh, crusty Italian bread is always a good omen; particularly so in this instance, as it is accompanied by, in addition to butter, a ramekin of pungent green olive tapenade rife with anchovy. This may not be to everyone's taste -- and I freely confess that I have never been an enthusiastic fan of these highly spirited little creatures -- but there is just enough flavor present to invigorate rather than alienate.

Among the antipasti, there are numerous treasures from the sea. The baby clams ($11.95) are pristinely and pleasantly plump and swim to table in a light but savory broth that harbors a plethora of white beans and ingratiating "kick" of spice. The jumbo scallops ($10.95) exhibit a golden brown exterior and marvelously meaty core. They recline on a sautéed seabed of broccoli rabe and pillow of whipped potatoes and are, in turn, surrounded by an addictive amalgam of finely chopped capers, Gaeta olives, tomatoes, and grilled shiitake mushrooms. Diaphanous pepper-encrusted slices of tuna carpaccio ($11.95) tantalize the tongue before melting away into a velvety nothingness, their rich texture beautifully counterpoised by a tiara of fennel and pecorino salad.

Non-seafood starters also have a great deal to recommend them. Consider, for example, the hearty baked polenta with sausage in a zippy tomato sauce ($9.95) or the Napoleon of eggplant, tomato, mozzarella, and basil in the company of a Parmesan fondue ($9.95). Even a presentation as patently prosaic as grilled baby vegetables ($10.50) clearly demonstrates Ms. Froio's unique sense of style. For openers, the vegetables -- slices of yellow squash, eggplant, zucchini and spears of asparagus, Broccolini, and fennel -- are perfectly grilled. They are also beautifully plated and crowned with slivers of roasted red pepper, a hefty slice of homemade buffalo mozzarella, and drizzle of Tuscan olive oil. A palpable hit for both eye and palate.

When it comes to entrées, bear in mind that the chef has a way with finny fare. Take her treatment of the humble cod, for instance... The filet that has taken up permanent residence on the printed menu is encrusted with black truffles and surrounded by a pool of lentils and diced vegetables ($22.95); the representative that puts in a guest appearance, on the other hand, is embraced by a sun-dried tomato crust and reclines on a luxurious zucchini gratin ($27.95). In both cases, the crust is just right -- light and delicate -- adding auspicious notes of color, taste, and texture but not volume. And the pan-seared halibut filet swimming in a lush mushroom ragoût ($27.95) is yet another nightly special that is well worth seeking out.

Those who may not be partial to seafood, however, are certainly not given short shrift. Pastas, as you would surmise -- including ethereal potato gnocchi with tomatoes and basil ($13.95) and pumpkin risotto with chervil and aged Parmesan ($15.95) -- also hold a prominent place in Ms. Froio's repertoire. Recently sampled, for example, was a presentation of al dente linguine tossed with luscious roasted tomatoes, tender broccoli rabe, garlic, and creamy goat cheese ($17.95). The dish was so extraordinarily tasty that I was barely able to hold my other table companions' forks at bay.

And there's plenty to keep carnivores happy as well... The veal chop Milanese ($28.95) -- replete with arugula, tomato salad, and drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette -- is exceedingly moist and tender; and the filet mignon ($27.95), which arrives at table a right-on-the-money medium rare in the company of garlic mashed potatoes and wilted spinach, is equally pleasing.

One of the aspects of Ms. Froio's cooking that I particularly admire is her attention to detail. She dresses her culinary offerings with a definitive but discreet sense of style; accoutrements are attractive without being intrusive. In one instance, a crown of grilled vegetables and slices of roasted red pepper adds a splash of color; in another, slices of zucchini and Roma tomato and diminutive dollop of whipped potatoes provide the pizzazz.

Desserts ($7.00) demonstrate the same sophisticated subtleties as their predecessors. The classic cheesecake is precisely that: rich and creamy, locked in the loving embrace of a scrumptious chocolate graham cracker crust and garnished with fresh fruit. And while tiramisù has become something of an overworked cliché of late, the version encountered here is anything but commonplace. The mascarpone is as smooth as silk; the rum, espresso, and bittersweet chocolate, in perfect harmony. A winner in every respect... ditto the almond biscotti served up with lemon drops and chocolate cookies.

If asked to choose my favorite, however, the nod would undoubtedly go to the tora al limone, luscious lemon cake with toasted coconut and splash of mango purée. Simple but seductive.

The restaurant also sports a compact, reasonably priced wine list -- be sure to try the Pighin Pinot Grigio ($36.00) or Santa Cristina Sangiovese ($25.00) -- as well as a selection of dessert wines, ports, sherries, cordials, cognacs, and single malt scotches.

Should you find yourself anywhere in the Red Bank/Lincroft/northern Jersey Shore vicinity, be sure to pay a call at I Cavallini. Chef Toni Froio's cuisine is surely worth a detour... or a journey, for that matter.

Cuisine: Innovative Italian
Hours: Lunch: (not served in the summer) Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: http://www.icavallini.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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