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Tanti Baci Caffe
2 White Deer Plaza
Lake Mohawk
Sparta, New Jersey
(973) 726-9399

Garlic BreadTanti Baci Caffe (“Many Kisses” in Italian) opened its doors in New York City’s West Greenwich Village in 1992 as a family owned and operated fresh pasta shop. But due to “an overwhelming customer response,” according to their website, it “grew to a full service restaurant, serving reasonably priced fresh authentic Italian dishes with a hand picked wine list.”

In 2009, a satellite establishment made its debut on Sparta’s Lake Mohawk… And I must confess that, after a recent meal here, I am completely amazed that the restaurant is still alive and well. I don’t know what the food is like at the Greenwich Village outpost… but here in the Garden State, it simply doesn’t make the grade.

For starters, to paraphrase restaurant critic Jim Quinn’s old maxim: “Never eat in an empty restaurant… everyone who isn’t there must know something you don’t.” Well, the joint wasn’t technically empty… but it wasn’t exactly jumpin’ either; one other couple huddled together in a far corner. I mean, let’s get real… A Thursday evening on the penultimate day of June in a bustling summer vacation community where several other restaurants in our immediate line of vision were already packing them in… and this place is the next thing to deserted… something was obviously amiss. We should have feigned sudden illness and beat a hasty retreat.

But we didn’t… It was our anniversary; we’d made reservations several days ahead; the room looked inviting; and we were hoping against hope that, through some miraculous culinary hocus-pocus, the cuisine would come up to expectations… So much for wishful thinking.

In all fairness, the food wasn’t horrible; meaning, it wasn’t about to cause catastrophic bouts of peristaltic indisposition. On the other hand, it did suffer from significant errors of preparation and presentation.

Eggplant NapoleonThere were, however, one or two high points. The toasted garlic bread was very good; crisp, crunchy, and just garlicky enough to keep you coming back for more. My appetizer, the eggplant Napoleon, also had a little something going for it. The layers of eggplant were appropriately thinly sliced & lightly breaded and fried up just right – which is to say neither woefully underdone nor too disgustingly mushy. And the accompaniments – fresh mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, and a first-rate tomato sauce – were all administered in just the right proportion. This is the one dish that acquitted itself reasonably well…

After that, I’m afraid, things went downhill fast. My wife’s grilled Portobello starter – stuffed with pancetta, onions, Parmesan cheese, and a finishing splash of aged balsamic vinegar – sounded incredible. But, as Cervantes once said, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” And, unfortunately, the description was infinitely more appetizing than the ingestion itself. Indeed, in spite of the copious list of ingredients, the only Stuffed Portabellodiscernible item was a surfeit of breadcrumbs imbued with a decidedly acrid flavor. Add to this a dark and brooding appearance, and you had famine for the eye as well as the palate.

Entrée-wise, the lasagna classica, highly recommended by our waiter, was a complete disappointment. The consistency of the pasta was just fine, but the sauce left a good deal to be desired. It tasted… well, the problem is it lacked taste. It also had a rather odd, off-putting consistency, which was not the result of the addition of béchamel – a favorite ingredient of northern Italian lasagna recipes… No, the culprit here was, undoubtedly, too much thickener, which obviously contributed to the lack of flavor. Two bites were all that I could manage.

Veal SaltimboccaMy wife’s veal saltimbocca was something of a mixed bag. The veal was obviously of good quality -- not the processed Styrofoam used in many eateries – (we actually heard the chef pounding the veal in the kitchen once it had been ordered); but the white wine-butter sauce was insipid and lacked sage. In addition, the dish was accompanied by a mound of tasteless mashed potatoes, which only contributed to the presentation’s significantly less than edifying “whiteout” effect. After all, the gullet can only ingest what the eye can endure.

Could the kitchen simply have had an “off night”? That is, of course, possible… But two important factors mitigated against this. First of all, as noted at the outset, the establishment was nearly deserted. An empty restaurant – especially in prime time and season – is, needless to say, not a good sign. Secondly, our waiter seemed to take our nearly untouched food completely in stride – as if he’d seen all this many times before – never inquiring as to the possible whys or wherefores. Which, of course, leads me to believe that our experience was the rule rather than the exception.

The Bottom Line: There are simply too many first-rate restaurants in the area to waste your money – and appetite – here.

August 2011
The Artful Diner

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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