19 South Main Street
Lambertville, Hunterdon County, NJ
The Artful Diner
February 28, 2009
When it comes to the roundup of usual Italian dishes on the printed menu, my advice is to keep things as simple as possible. Both the eggplant and chicken Parmesan are generously proportioned and acquit themselves reasonably well… ditto the spaghetti marinara with either meatballs or sausage & peppers. On the other hand, I've noticed that certain seafood items - such as the shrimp, pan-seared scallops, or seafood medley - can be variable in their execution.
Desserts are a definite weak link. At one time, one or two of the denouements were actually made in house, but that is, apparently, a thing of the past. Most, like the chocolate or white chocolate tartufo, cannoli, or chocolate layer cake are merely generic. And, on my most recent visit, the tiramisu was eminently forgettable. There is no espresso here, and the coffee is another bummer. What I sampled was weak, insipid and, in a word, downright terrible.
Everybody comes to Rick's... or so it seems. This bustling BYOB attracts a veritable potpourri of patrons, locals and touristy types alike, all happily chowing down a plethoric variety of Italian standards and more innovative specials.
Rick Buscavage, the original owner, sold the establishment to his friend and culinary colleague, Alex Cormier, in 2004 and departed the scene... But Rick's lives on... in the retro pine paneling and red & white checkered tablecloths... and, even more definitively, in the food.
And this, in my opinion, is really where the action is. For while the printed menu rounds up all the usual suspects - pastas, parmigiana, and seafood - the daily specials often add a surprising touch of French bistro to the proceedings.
Recent blackboard offerings, for example, included the likes of succulent braised pork osso buco kissed by a shallot demi-glace, seared monkfish swimming in a saffron-caper sauce, and tender sautéed calamari buttressed by hot peppers, tomatoes, and olives over pasta. But top honors go to the luscious braised boneless short ribs topped with horseradish sauce on a pillow of mashed potatoes. The meat is meat exhibits just the right texture - appropriately fatty… but not too fatty - and the tangy sauce adding an exhilaratingly tangy counterpoint.
The daily specials can generally be counted on to deliver the goods… But there are a few clinkers. I was assured that the Mediterranean pizza - artichoke hearts, slices of red pepper, olives, spinach, mushrooms, and cheddar and mozzarella cheeses - would sport a thin, crisp crust. Upon its arrival, however, "thick" and "doughy" were the descriptors that came most immediately to mind. And the texture was odd in extremis. Was this real pizza dough or some strange neither fish nor fowl replication thereof
Mr. Cormier holds forth in the kitchen, carrying on the tradition of wooing customers with homey Italian fare at more than reasonable prices. Meanwhile, his wife, Dana Ruggiero, whom Mr. Cormier met as a patron of the restaurant, does a wonderful job of charming diners at the front of the house and enthusiastically explicating the chef's more creative blackboard specials…
It is always somewhat amazing to me what chefs & restaurateurs do and do not think is important to their continued success. They would do well, for example, to realize that the last thing a customer tastes is likely to be the first thing he/she remembers about a particular dining experience. If a restaurant mucks up at the outset, it has the entire evening to play catch-up, to win back the diner's affections, so to speak. On the other hand, if the faux pas is committed at the very end of the meal, wronged parties seldom return to the scene of the crime. In comparison to Mr. Cormier's other culinary offerings, dessert and coffee may not be high on his list of priorities… but they do leave a lasting impression that should not be ignored.
There's a lot to like about Rick's - as hoards of happy diners certainly testify - but there are also some drawbacks as well. For example, the restaurant only accepts reservations for parties of 4 or more and tends to fill up at the speed of light; so diners must come early or wait in Casablanca… and wait… and wait… and wait (there's a hanging clipboard sign-up sheet in the tiny foyer).
Mr. Cormier's culinary offerings are good… but they could be - and should be - better. Portions are generous and tariffs reasonable. On the other hand, several of the appetizer prices seem a bit out of sync, occasionally going for more than some of the pasta dishes. Desserts, as noted above, are a weak point.
And just one concluding criticism… Minor, to be sure… Or maybe not so minor, depending upon your physical stature. The restroom is tiny and cramped. Just how tiny? I do not exaggerate when I say that I've seen more spacious facilities on airplanes. Needless to say, it is not wheelchair accessible - neither is the restaurant proper.
The Bottom Line: If you're hooked on culinary nostalgia, Rick's will undoubtedly provide a very pleasant retro dining experience. Conversely, if you're a serious foodie on the prowl for authentic, homey Italian cookery - specifically, the joys of homemade pastas - there is absolutely no question in my mind that DeAnna's does it better.
The homemade cheese manicotti was also somewhat problematic. The cheese filling was just fine… ditto the rich red sauce. But the pasta tubes themselves were decidedly leathery of countenance and also rather severely charred around the edges.
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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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