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Nunzio Ristorante Rustico
706 Haddon Avenue
Collingswood, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 858-9840

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com

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 dining areas.

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 plays on.

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 simplicity.

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. - 9:00 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
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: Web Site: www.nunzioristoranterustico.com

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