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Il Mulino Ristorante
Restaurant Now Called Ciao Luigi - Same Ownership and Menu
32 Fulper road
Flemington, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 806-0595

By The Artful Diner
February 11, 2008


When I posted my first review of Il Mulino, on November 27, 2000, the brothers Ameti -- Marcello, Bruno, and Luciano -- presided over the establishment, the service was first class, the northern Italian cuisine was well-prepared and casually sophisticated of countenance, and this charmingly comfortable BYOB stood out as one of the area's few culinary bright spots.

But several significant events have transpired in the seven plus intervening years. First of all, during the summer of 2006, Luigi Pascale and his wife, Mariella, both natives of Italy, took over Il Mulino's proprietorship. Secondly, Flemington, which I once described as a "shopper's paradise and something of a diner's nightmare," has blossomed into an exciting restaurant town, with establishments like Matt's Red Rooster Grill, Fusion, and 55 Main leading the culinary charge. The inevitable conclusion of these two developments is that, restaurant-wise, Flemington's bar has been raised significantly... and, from this writer's perspective, Il Mulino simply hasn't kept up a comparable gastronomic pace.

There is absolutely no question that Mr. Pascale is an exceedingly affable and congenial host, ever diligent in seeking to provide the very best dining experience for his guests. Unfortunately, Chef Carlos Manfredi's offerings lack the same care of preparation and presentation that characterized the cuisine under the restaurant's previous administration.

Forget the fancy-schmancy appetizers, a well-executed soup is always a good indicator as to whether the kitchen is or is not on track... and the two representatives I sampled were not auspicious harbingers of chef's prowess. The lentil soup ($5.95), a daily special, sounded wonderful. You anticipated a rich, heart-warming pottage. What arrived, however, were a few lentils, diced potatoes, and carrots swimming in a thin, off-tasting broth that had all the pizzazz of warm dishwater. The pasta e fagioli ($4.95) was somewhat more agreeable but lacked any significant depth of flavor.

This is rather puzzling, as Mr. Manfredi, formerly of Ferrato's in Westfield and Somerville, does seem to have his moments. His complimentary bruschetta, for example, is first-rate: The crisp toasts are piled high with a top-notch mixture of diced tomatoes and pungent garlic. And the artichoke hearts Francese ($7.95) are lightly battered and sautéed with a delicate sauce of lemon juice, fresh herbs, and white wine. Definitely a high point among the starters... ditto the portobello mushroom cap stuffed with a vegetable ratatouille and finished with a very nice balsamic sauce ($9.95).

Entrées are also somewhat erratic. The pork braciole ($20.95), for example, was an excellent effort. The pork, rolled with spinach & provolone cheese and braised in a heady tomato ragoût with mushrooms & sun-dried tomatoes and set on a bed of al dente fettuccine, was moist and extremely flavorful.

On the other hand, the rigatoni con pollo ($15.95) was very nearly beneath contempt. The pasta was tough around the edges, and the chunks of chicken and sausage were dry and tasteless. Add peppers and mushrooms in a overly viscious tomato-basil conglomeration and the result was famine for the eye as well as the palate.

Equally regrettable was the special salmon filet with littleneck clams and mussels ($22.95). In this case a tomato sauce covered a multitude of sins, as the bivalves had most assuredly seen better days, and the salmon was decidedly "fishy." The accompanying green beans were rubbery and the dollop of mashed potatoes salty to the point of being inedible.

In comparison, the vitello Mulino ($19.95), dressed in prosciutto and mozzarella, was a step up... but barely. The scallops of veal exhibited a strange, unnatural texture -- an unappetizing cross between Styrofoam and wet cardboard -- the roasted garlic sauce was rather insipid, and the partners in crime were more of those rubbery green beans and terribly salty mashed potatoes.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is clearly that entrées are something of a crapshoot. After my experience with the salmon/littlenecks/mussels, I would be loath to tempt fate and order seafood once again; the pasta dish I sampled was a complete washout; and the veal also did not have a great deal to recommend it. The only main course that passed muster was the pork braciole... which means that the kitchen is sporting an exceedingly poor batting average. And it is certainly no fun patronizing a restaurant where one must order with the circumspection of a minnow in a shark tank.

By way of contrast, the desserts ($4.95) are not bad at all, especially the excellent house-made tiramisù. And the potent espresso ($1.75), which is imported from Italy, is the perfect accompaniment.

Given its primo location, pleasant ambiance -- including the warmth of a roaring fireplace in the dead of winter -- affable proprietor, and moderate pricing, Il Mulino Ristorante has a great deal of potential. But Flemington's culinary competition has revved up dramatically in the past few years. And if Mr. Pascale hopes to remain in the running, the inconsistencies that currently plague the kitchen must certainly be rectified in the very near future.

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner, Tues - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sat, 3:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 3:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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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