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Paulie's Anna Rose
234 West Upper Ferry Road
West Trenton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 882-1150

By The Artful Diner
Special to NJ.Com
September 10, 2007

Settled serenely on a gently rolling, beautifully landscaped hillside, from a purely aesthetic perspective, Paulie's is difficult to resist. The building itself is a lovingly-restored Victorian replete with several attractive dining rooms accented with pink and burgundy napery, a cozy bar area, and a spacious porch & patio for al fresco dining in warmer weather. The restaurant is a charmer on all counts, and the perfect venue for a casually romantic rendezvous.

The cuisine, on the other hand, is more comforting than cosmopolitan, exuding a lusty, homespun Italian aura that offers an intriguing antithesis to the old-fashioned elegant ambiance. The complimentary bruschetta, which awaits diners as they are seated at table, properly sets the tone of things to come. The chopped tomatoes are lush and meaty and the toasts properly crisp... yet not so brittle as to cause irreparable damage to your dental work.

Appetizers are rustic and robust and, in many cases, prodigiously proportioned. The special tomato salad ($6.50), for example, features slices of gloriously ripe fresh Jersey tomatoes set on a bed of mixed greens adorned with either morsels of mozzarella or feta (we opted for the former), red onion, minced garlic, and fresh basil dressed in a light balsamic vinaigrette. A marvelous starter, but, unless you possess the appetite of a ravening hyena, quite easily shared by two.

The grilled portobello mushroom set on a bed of spinach ($9.50) is yet another extravagant offering. Smothered with chunks of sausage, grated cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and garlic sauce, it is undeniably delicious... but looks like is has been dropped onto the plate from twenty thousand feet.

Both the fried ravioli ($9.50) and the mussels ($9.50) are traditional favorites but show a touch more subtlety than the aforementioned presentations. The former is comprised of three beautifully textured ravioli set on a bed of raw baby spinach and topped with a heady marinara and grated Parmesan cheese. A tiara of perfectly grilled shrimp is pristinely crunchy. The latter offers plump bivalves swimming in a light but flavorful pool of white wine butter sauce gently caressed by saffron. In both instances, the portion size is generous but not gargantuan.

Among the entrées, the shrimp fra diavolo ($22.50) is an Italian standard, but here it is exceedingly well-executed on a bed of al dente linguine. And the veal dishes ($19.50) are the real thing -- as opposed to the wet cardboard/Styrofoam taste and texture of the processed variety. The medallions are pounded thin and loaded with plenty of natural flavor... unfortunately, most of this is eclipsed by an overzealous saucier, who insists upon smothering rather than caressing the objects of his affections.

And the veal Paulie (also the chicken Paulie, $17.50) is an excellent case in point. The tender medallions are buried beneath an avalanche of garlic, shallots, mushrooms, roasted peppers, and green peas and then drowned in a Champagne cream sauce. The veal picatta is a better choice, although the white wine-lemon sauce is still somewhat overbearing. The ingredients are obviously fresh and of the highest quality, but the sauces and other accoutrements are, in my view, too liberally and indiscriminately applied. More is less.

This is also the problem with the special herb-encrusted tilapia ($23.95). The filets are beautifully pan seared, but they struggle to hold their own against a lemon-white wine sauce and topping of sun-dried tomatoes, capers, onions, and fresh diced tomatoes. Once again, just too much of a good thing. The presentation of herb-crusted salmon ($19.50) appears positively Spartan by comparison, but the squiggles of honey-mustard sauce need more zip and less sweetness.

Side dishes, though, are positively first-rate. Many entrées give diners a choice of potato & vegetable or pasta. And the latter is something the kitchen does exceedingly well. My penne, which tagged along with the aforementioned salmon, was firm to the bite and coated with a rich and satisfying marinara. The mashed potatoes ($3.50) are lusciously lumpy, and the grilled Tuscan vegetables ($6.50) simple yet sublime.

Service here is young and willing but can be variable. On one occasion, we dined outside on the patio and were constantly distracted by a gaggle of gabby servers huddled around a service area. These types of social powwows seem especially problematic early in the evening when servers aren't sufficiently occupied, although they are a good deal less noticeable in the interior dining areas.

And one final note with regard to our open-air experience... Evidently there had been a soaking rain the evening before our visit. Unfortunately, management had not seen fit to remove cushions from the patio chairs at the time. The consequence of this neglect was not immediately discernable. No, it took a while for one's rear end... and the truth to settle in. And then: You suddenly realized that your daring dierrière was literally luxuriating in a pool of water. Ahhh... the joys of al fresco dining.

But despite a number of faux pas, Paulie's Anna Rose possesses a positively alluring and seductive quality. It isn't perfect by any means, but it is surely endearing -- and that is, indeed, rare in these days of "take it or leave it" dining. If I resided in the area, and were not otherwise engaged as a professional "hired belly," I have no doubts that my wife and I would be dropping in on a regular basis.

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; modest wine list
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.pauliesannarose.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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