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
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
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
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
Alcohol: License; nice wine list and extensive selection of martinis
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
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