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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

RosaLuca's Italian Bistro
1114 Route 173
Asbury, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 238-0018

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
August 28, 2006

Printable Copy of this Review

By now, of course, most of New Jersey's culinary cognoscenti are aware of Jill and Carmine Castaldo's intriguing romantic story: The couple met at the CIA where she was a student; he, an instructor. They married and eventually opened a catering company in Green Brook. But in 1997, they happened upon an abandoned building in Bethlehem Township just off Route 78 in Hunterdon County. After two years of renovations, RosaLuca's, which is named in honor or Mr. Castaldo's parents, Rosa and Luca, was born.

As you ascend the hill on Route 173, the lovingly restored farmhouse beckons warmly. The interior is simple but decidedly homey, adorned with black and white family photographs and crisp white napery. There is also an attractive diminutive bar area where guests may enjoy one of the establishment's well-made 66 martinis ($9.00). Recently sampled, for instance, was a zippy "Bloody Martini" endowed with Absolut Pepper, Absolut Citron, Bloody Mary mix, and tincture of lime.

A compact wine list featuring a number of tried-and-true selections: Ruffino Lumina Pinot Grigio ($8.00 glass/$33.00 bottle), Brancott Sauvignon Blanc ($8.00/$33.00), Rosemount Shiraz ($8.50/$37.00), Estancia Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.00/$42.00), J. Garcia Zinfandel ($12.00/$46.00), just to name a few. My only quibble is that a number of vintages appear inordinately pricey. I mean, charging $37.00 for Antinori's "Santa Cristina" Sangiovese, which may be purchased retail for about 10 bucks, does seem a bit over-the-top... ditto the $37.00 price tag accompanying the Rosemount Shiraz. Even a bottle of Voss Spring Water weighs in at a hefty $8.50.

The cuisine here is also not an inexpensive proposition. A scant three years ago, for example, one reviewer noted that most entrées were priced under $20.00. That is certainly not the case today. Other than the pasta dishes, the only main course finishing (barely) under the $20.00 mark is the oven-roasted boneless chicken with Parmesan scalloped potatoes, spring asparagus, and natural red wine jus ($19.95). Entrées range from the high twenties to the mid thirties.

But don't misunderstand. I am not for a moment suggesting that the food is not worth the expenditure. It is, in my opinion, worth every last penny and then some. Mr. Castaldo's innovative Italian presentations utilize only the freshest possible ingredients -- with herbs grown onsite and vegetables produced on the couple's ten-acre plot just down the road -- and are lovingly prepared, nicely presented, and amply proportioned. Just be forewarned: RosaLuca's may no longer be considered a gastronomic safe haven for the incurably tight of pocket. Cuisine of this caliber does not come cheaply.

You begin with scrumptious slices of crusty homemade bread (loaves are also available to travel, $4.00 per loaf) companioned by olive oil for dipping, and then move on to a delightful array of antipasti. In this regard, the thin-crust pizzette ($10.95) is a simple but seductive starter. Layered with homegrown tomatoes, garlic, basil, and mozzarella & Romano cheese, the crust is wafer thin yet incredibly substantive and satisfying.

On the other hand, rings of flash-fried cornmeal- and Parmesan-crusted calamari ($11.95) are ethereally tender; and their succulent countenance finds a perfect counterpoint in spicy tomato aîoli. And if treasures of the sea are high on your appetizer agenda, do not hesitate to order the veritable mountain of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($12.95). Pristine and mouthwateringly plump, they swim to table in a heady broth tinctured with vermouth and awash with tender carrots and leeks.

Recently added to the menu, however, is my own personal fave among the starters: three tender, perfectly grilled eggplant slices topped with dollops of Parmesan soufflé ($10.95) -- Mr. Castaldo, you soon joyously discover, is big on cheese. The soufflé is extraordinarily rich and supernal of texture; but the richness is beautifully counterbalanced by a drizzle of earthy, aromatic basil oil.

Among the entrées, piscatorial presentations are particularly noteworthy. The grouper, for example, is delightfully crispy of countenance, moist and flaky, and arrives on a seabed of diced garden vegetables ($27.95). Crunchy sautéed shrimp and steamed mussels have strong supporting roles, and a sherry shrimp sauce provides a marvelous consummating touch. The pan-seared black sea bass crowned with organic greens ($28.95), a nightly special, is also quite excellent. It is presented on a pillow of diced zucchini imbued with just a pinch of mint and is finished with a deliciously complementary lemon verbena glaze.

RosaLuca's pastas also make marvelous main courses. And, when it is offered, don't miss the opportunity to sample Mr. Castaldo's superlative homemade lasagna ($17.95). It is layered with luscious chunks of sweet Italian sausage and summer squash with mozzarella, set in a pool of heady marinara, and topped with a decadent four-cheese sauce.

When it comes to meatier matters, the special vegetable-braised osso buco ($32.95) is a standout. It is fall-off-the-bone tender and presented with a wonderful saffron and fresh pea risotto. As noted above, expect portion sizes to be more than ample... but the osso buco is positively gargantuan. No question about getting your money's worth here. Ditto with the delectable veal Milanese ($35.00). The veal chop is pounded thin, lightly breaded and fried and topped with a combo of greens, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and sliced red onions. The coup de grâce is delivered by an invigorating citrus dressing.

Among the other possibilities, you can't go wrong with either the special grilled filet mignon accompanied by olive oil whipped potatoes, garlic sautéed spinach, and cabernet reduction ($32.95) or the roasted rack of lamb presented with a fava bean and wild mushroom ragout ($29.95).

Even though most entrées are not for the faint of appetite, I would still urge you to give some of the sides ($5.95) a whirl, as they are extraordinarily delicious. The wild mushrooms are sautéed just right, the broccoli rabe is firm to the bite but not at all chewy or bitter, and the Asiago potatoes set a new standard of gastronomic decadence.

Desserts ($7.95), courtesy of Mrs. Castaldo, don't miss a beat. The lemon/blueberry gelato beguiles the palate with just the proper interplay of sweet and tart, as does the ultra-creamy strawberry/lime mousse presented in a delicate phyllo cup. And for those with a real sweet tooth, nothing satisfies quite like the real down-home warm white chocolate/almond bread pudding swimming in a rich caramel sauce and embellished with vanilla ice cream.

Chowing down at RosaLuca's isn't the bargain it once was. Be that as it may, however, given the warm welcome, excellent service, generous portions, and impeccable quality of the cuisine, patrons will surely not feel shortchanged. My one regret is that, given my reviewing schedule, I will be unable to dine here more often.

Cuisine: Innovative Italian
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner; Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.: CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; nice wine list and extensive selection of martinis
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Online: www.rosalucas.com

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