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Tulipano Nero
Restaurant Closed - Il Mi Jung (Korean) now in this location.
3747 Church Road
Princeton Place Shopping Center
Mount Laurel, Burlington County, New Jersey
(856) 235-6955

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

If you just happen to be cruising by, this establishment isn't about to wow you. Indeed, it resembles every other nondescript strip mall eatery you've ever laid eyes on. Once inside, however, things change dramatically. Subdued lighting conveys a decidedly romantic message; patterned, comfortably cushioned chairs are an attractive contrast to dark green tablecloths; and the warmth of a large open grill adds a properly casual note to the festivities. If you constantly find yourself on the prowl for top-notch northern Italian cuisine served up in a relaxed yet sophisticated amosphere, Tulipano Nero will more than fill the bill.

There is no liquor license here, but you are welcome to BYOB, and you may be assured that your vintages will be treated with proper care. It's always a particularly edifying touch to match up food and wine from the same country, so I would suggest that you tote along an excellent 1995 Chianti Classico Riserva from Carpineto or a 1996 Chianti Classico from San Felice (both run in the $15.00 range at your local retailer). If you would prefer white, the 1998 Antinori Orvieto or Villa White are both quite nice (about $10.00 per bottle).

While you take a gander at the menu, you'll be treated to crusty Italian bread and a dish of yummy roasted peppers and onions. But go easy, as appetizers have a good deal to recommend them. Grilled and seafood items are specialties here, so a nod to either would be an auspicious opening move. The Griggliata Mista DiVerdure ($6.50), an assortment of grilled fesh veggies, is enhanced with a touch of olive oil and fresh herbs. Simple but most satisfying. A bit more upscale is the grilled portobello ($10.95). It is marinated in balsamic vinegar, then fired, sliced, and sprinkled with sage, rosemary and parsley. When it comes to treasures of the sea, the cockles ($8.95) in a delicate white wine sauce are wonderfully plump. Equally up to the mark is the Cozze Alla Napoletana ($6.95), tender mussels swimming in a spicy marinara.

Among the other starters, the special "Pasta Mista" ($7.95) -- consisting of diminutive portions of cheese ravioli with red pepper sauce, fettuccine Alfredo, and penne with a spicy arrabbiata sauce -- was positively addictive. For those who enjoy soup as a prelude, the establishment's Tuscan bean ($3.95) is hard to beat. It is both flavorful and robust, and seasoned with just a touch of rosemary. And for those who would prefer salad, the Insalata Pazza ($7.95), spinach, Gorgonzola, raisins, pine nuts, and grilled red onions tossed with a light vinaigrette, is certain to do wonders for your tired taste buds.

Entree selections are quite extensive. Pastas, for example, run the gamut. My favorites include: the very simple, yet completely delicious Capellini al Pomodoro ($12.95), angel hair pasta with tomatoes and basil; Farfalle al Salmone ($14.95), bow ties with tender morsels of salmon spruced up with just a touch of cream and finished with a first-class marinara; and Tagliatelle Primavera ($13.50), egg noodle pasta combined with olive oil, garlic, and a medley of garden fresh veggies.

Veal and chicken dishes are also very much in evidence, and all are quite tasty. Among the former, the Medaglioni alla Principessa ($19.95), melt-in-your-mouth medallions of veal and sweet chunks of crabmeat, make for a perfect culinary marriage. The Pollo Tulipano Nero ($17.95), boneless chicken breast accompanied by shrimp, tomatoes and white wine, is also a most satisfying presentation. And when it comes to seafood, be sure to opt for the absolutely glorious Cozze & Vongole ($19.95), mussels, clams and scallops served on a seabed of linguine and consummated with a spicy marinara that generates just enough heat to tantalize your palate.

As admirable as these aforementioned items may be, however, I have always been of the opinion that one will never go wrong by casting one's lot with what a given establishment does best... And, at Tulipano Nero, the grill is the thing. This is especially true in matters piscatorial. Picture, if you will, a salmon filet ($21.95) ever so slightly crunchy on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside. Seldom have I encountered such an exquisitely prepared representative of this particular genre. The very same may be said for the grilled pompano and striped bass (both $23.95). And the firm yet delicate Dover sole ($28.95) is fired whole and then carefully filleted. All are embellished with a single slice of grilled tomato, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and a wedge of lemon. All are utterly profound in their simplicity.

For those who desire to take advantage of this specific form of cookery, but who may not be in the mood to partake of finny creatures, I would suggest the Filetto alla Griglia ($22.95), the 10-ounce filet mignon sizzled to perfection on the oak grill. Or, should you prefer fowl, the grilled boneless chicken breast ($13.95) topped with arugula, tomatoes and onions is also highly recommended.

The homemade desserts ($4.95) may very well be the weakest link in the culinary chain here and, upon occasion, somewhat inconsistent. Starting at the top, the tiramisu is just heavenly. The strawberry shortcake laced with rum is good but not exceptional. And the espresso cake with ladyfinger crust and a touch of sambucca was positively extraordinary the first time 'round. On a subsequent visit, however, it had obviously been pre-plated and was suffering the debilitating effects of a prolonged exile in the refrigerator. Coffee ($1.50), espresso ($2.25) and cappuccino ($3.00), however, are all up to the mark.

One very important concluding note... My wife and I had dined here on two separate occasions and, after a six-month hiatus, recently returned for our third visit. We were treated to attractive new menus -- and something akin to "sticker shock" as well. While there had been modest price hikes pretty much across the board, the tariffs on certain items had been increased substantially. The Polenta con Funghi and Polenta Primavera, for instance, both spiraled from $8.95 to $12.95. And the aforementioned grilled filet mignon jumped from $16.95 to $22.95. But the biggest offender was the Filetto Ripieno, butterflied filet topped with crabmeat, fontina cheese and brandy cream sauce. It had leaped a whopping $9.00, from $19.95 to $28.95. Additionally, under the new menu regime, a house salad is no longer included in the price of the entree.

There is no question in my mind that the food here is worthy of serious consideration. Just be forewarned... While it is still possible to keep the tab within reasonable limits, and to save a few bucks by toting along your own liquid libations, there is little doubt that Tulipano Nero now has the capacity to inflict major monetary damage.

Cuisine: Northern Italian
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sat & Sun, 4:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recomended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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