Collingswood has come alive. This once sleepy, nondescript little burg
is now a burgeoning repository of boutique shops, restaurants, and sidewalk
musicians. And there is no question that Nunzio Ristorante Rustico, which
premiered in December 2003, has added significantly to the festivities.
This was a much-anticipated debut, as chef/proprietor Nunzio Patruno was, for
many years, the power behind the stove at the fashionable Monte Carlo Living
Room, a highly rated upscale Italian outpost on Philadelphia's South Street.
Decoratively and gastronomically, however, his current venture is infinitely
more casual in scope. Tariffs are also firmly planted on trattoria terra
firma -- although a few daily specials do hit the $30.00 mark.
Once through the roomy foyer, you encounter a faux piazza replete with
seacoast murals, stucco, distressed brick, and high blue-sky ceiling arrayed
with white puffy clouds. This is not an insignificant space (accommodating 120
patrons), with half-walls cleverly dividing the restaurant into four separate
One restaurant critic described these nooks as "cozy"; but his assessment is
surely more fantasy than fact. "Noisy" is the adjective that comes immediately
to mind... ditto "bustling," "cacophonous," "ear-splitting," "turbulent,"
"uproarious." Fill in the blank. "Cozy?" I think not.
In point of fact, this establishment is something of an acoustical nightmare.
The sound reverberates off the hard surfaces like a chorus of dissonant
chainsaws. Even if you happen to be ensconced in the most sedate seat in the
house (the alcove immediately to the left of the foyer), when the restaurant is
full -- which appears to be most of the time -- the noise level can be
deafening. And despite the fact that an August '04 review noted that Mr. Patruno
was "on noise patrol" -- consulting with an interior decorator and acoustical
engineer, etc., etc. -- as of this writing, euphemistically speaking, the band
And it is not merely the architectural anomalies that produce this incredible
"ping-pong" pandemonium. Nunzio seems to attract a particularly clamorous
and, at the same time, contradictory clientele: The conversation is
extraordinarily loud and lusty, punctuated with a variety of generous gyrating
gesticulations; and the proud possessors of Walmartian and Sears sartorial
fineries appear completely captivated by the presence of daring
décolletage and designer duds. This is, evidently, the au courant
eatery to see and be seen -- and there's a good deal of both going on.
The pleasures -- and possible perils -- of people-watching notwithstanding,
given Mr. Patruno's illustrious reputation, it is still the cuisine that remains
this establishment's major attraction. Of course, it lacks the carefully
orchestrated, finely-tuned elegance of the chef's tenure at the Monte Carlo
Living Room, but, as noted above, this is clearly by design; indeed, apart from
one or two minor glitches, his rustic trattoria-style fare acquits itself with
suitable distinction... And he succeeds in capturing your attention right out of
the box with an offering of freshly baked foccaccia and sumptuous slices of
Italian bread teamed with a pleasantly pungent pesto dipping sauce.
Try not to overindulge, however, as appetizers bring forth some marvelous
possibilities. And my absolute favorite among the starters is the pappardelle
al coniglio, which may also be ordered as a main course ($10.00/$17.95).
Mouthwatering shreds of braised rabbit swim in a rich, soul-satisfying hunter's
stew -- a vibrant commingling of tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, wine, and fresh
herbs -- surrounded by sensuous ribbons of homemade pappardelle noodles.
Coming in a close second is the salsiccia di vitello ($8.95),
tumultuously tender slices of veal sausage, sautéed broccoli rabe, and
cannelloni beans bathed in a lively tomato broth. Both dishes, it should be
noted, represent Mr. Patruno at his very best... imbuing homey Italian classics
with his own unique brand of cosmopolitan culinary charm: congenial and
comforting yet exceedingly cultured. There's just enough pizzazz on the plate to
properly placate the palate without overwhelming the optic nerves.
The portobello alla griglia ($9.50) is yet another example of the
chef's artistic touch with even the most pedestrian of ingredients. A
balsamic-marinated portobello mushroom cap is grilled to meaty perfection and
then endowed with thick slices of smoky mozzarella cheese and finished with
splashes of pesto and chopped tomatoes. Utterly delicious; extraordinary in its
The only semi-disappointment among the starters proved to be the cozze
diavolate ($8.95), steamed mussels. They arrive either swimming in marinara
sauce or in a white wine broth laced with garlic and assorted other seasonings.
I inevitably choose the latter, as it gives me a better opportunity, not only to
judge the chef's capabilities, but also to more accurately assess the bivalves'
state of health. In this instance, the mussels were beyond reproach, plump and
completely devoid of sand, but the broth was decidedly "murky"; it lacked that
bewitchingly clean countenance that should characterize this particular dish.
When it comes to entrées, there are a number of ways to go. You may, for
example, choose to round up the usual suspects: chicken ($16.95) and eggplant
($15.75) parmigiana; veal saltimbocca and Marsala (both $18.95); or
broiled jumbo shrimp with garlic, olive oil, and breadcrumbs ($20.95), all of
which, of course, are quite up to the mark... But this seems an incredible waste
of time, money, and appetite. You can pay a call at any one of a number of
reputable Neapolitan nirvanas and chow these down to your heart's content. By
all means, cast your lot with the fresh fish and choice meats -- the daily
specials -- and afford Mr. Patruno the opportunity to do what he does best.
And the piscatorial pleasures are legion. Consider, if you will, the red
snapper filet ($28.00), its flaky pan seared flesh in the passionate embrace of
a lusty livornese sauce... or the beautifully seared pepper-encrusted
sushi-grade tuna ($28.00) endowed with an invigorating balsamic reduction, its
thick, luscious slices arranged around an epicenter of Swiss chard.
Even more to my liking, however, are the whole fishes filleted tableside. The
Dover sole ($28.00), for instance, is firm of texture and immensely flavorful --
demonstrating absolutely no deleterious effects of jet lag -- and is kissed by a
delicate lemon/caper/butter sauce. The branzino ($28.00), Mediterranean sea
bass, is incredibly moist and succulent, bathed in its own natural herb juices
and finished with an elegant butter sauce.
The rack of lamb ($30.00) is so utterly immense that I am barely able to
ingest half of what is placed before me. The meat is marinated in a heady Barolo
wine reduction, sprinkled with fresh herbs & garlic, splashed with olive
oil, and grilled to a right-on-the-money medium rare. Seldom have I tasted such
an exceptional rendition of this venerable classic. And the melt-in-your-mouth
veal chop ($30.00) is equally generous... and every bit as tasty.
When it comes to desserts ($6.00), Mr. Patruno likes to keep his hand in, and
the results are generally quite excellent. His tiramisù is benchmark and his
mille fogi -- crisp puff pastry permeated with vanilla custard, whipped
cream, and luscious morsels of seasonal fruit -- isn't far behind... ditto the
molten chocolate soufflé cake garnished with vanilla gelato.
The cheesecake, on the other hand, which is quite able to stand on its own
merits, suffers a significant loss of identity beneath floods of chocolate sauce
and raspberry coulis. And the panna cotta (Italian for "cooked cream") --
an extravagantly creamy eggless vanilla custard imbued with candied orange zest
-- on one occasion, proved a touch too gelatinous for my palate, lacking the
proper silky consistency and blazing snow white hue. On a second visit, however,
this delightful denouement had regained it proper composure.
The service here appears to be pressed to the max. During the warmer weather,
our waiter had four deuces and a party of six in the restaurant and four more
tables outside and was literally running from place to place. He did an
amazingly creditable job but was simply stretched too thin. If you decide to put
in an appearance on a free-for-all Saturday night, be advised that, depending
upon the competence of your server, the pace of your meal may vary considerably.
Nunzio Ristorante Rustico is a first-rate and extremely popular dining
establishment... and made even more so by Mr. Patruno's well-deserved reputation
and sure hand at the stove. Despite its popularity, however, unless steps are
taken to mitigate the preposterous noise level, ameliorate the interminable
waiting period for a table (even with reservations), and tone down the
incredibly frenetic atmosphere fueled by a phalanx of equally frenetic servers,
the restaurant could eventually fall victim to the law of diminishing returns.
And that would be unfortunate, indeed.
Cuisine: Regional Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs,
4:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 3:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 3:30 p.m. -
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Street parking
and nearby municipal lots; valet parking on Saturday nights
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.nunzioristoranterustico.com
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