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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Villa Amalfi
1006 Lakewood Road
Toms River, Ocean County, New Jersey
(732) 286-6044

By The Artful Diner

"Amalfi" is the name of both the port and the commune in the Campania region of southern Italy. Wild and mysterious, the Amalfi Coast runs its irregular course from just south of Pompeii to Salerno. Its rugged cliffs and coves keep watch over a series of picturesque fishing villages that are virtually untouched by tourism.

As you would expect, the culinary offerings at Villa Amalfi reflect their rustic Mediterranean heritage, with pomodoro and frutti di mare very much in evidence. But you also sense that this is not your typical "Neapolitan nirvana." There's a touch of class here: valet parking, a sophisticated dining room, snappy and proficient service. Although open for little more than six months, proprietors Carlo Boemio and Andre Esposito obviously have things well in hand; and nowhere is this more discernible than in the superior quality of the cuisine.

... Like the Asparagus Alla Romana... King asparagus spears are marinated in peanut oil and garlic, slowly grilled, and finished with a caramelized pignoli nut brittle vinaigrette. Clams Cocktail Amalfi (chilled Long Island blue point little neck clams) is another winning appetizer. Hankering for something a bit more substantial? The Involtini della Nonna, pasta rolled and stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, spinach and prosciutto in a light tomato sauce, is sure to satisfy. As is the Polenta Fantasia, grilled polenta topped with imported mascarpone cheese and sautéed spinach.

When it comes to entrees, I would strongly suggest that you give the various and sundry seafood selections a try. Be assured that all are at the very peak of good health, deftly prepared and represent an exceptional bang for your hard-earned buck. Old favorites like shrimp and lobster tail fra diavolo are presented on a bed of linguine and angel hair pasta, respectively. A superlative version of Zuppa de Pesce (seafood stew) includes such delicacies as tiger shrimp, squid, clams, Prince Edward Island mussels and the chef's fresh catch of the day.

For the more adventurous of palate, there is always Granchi Amalfi, sautéed lump crab meat tossed with shaved garlic, fresh herbs and farfalle pasta in a light cream sauce. Or perhaps Gamberoni alla Fantasia is more to your liking. Jumbo shrimp are topped with spinach and mozzarella and then cooked in a delicate wine sauce with just a splash of Champagne. Both are highly recommended.

Finny creatures, while conspicuous by their absence from the printed menu, do put in daily guest appearances. Tilefish livornese, sautéed with tomato sauce, black olives, capers and anchovies, was just one recent (and outrageously delicious) example of the rustic mouth-watering subtleties of southern Italian piscatorial fare.

If seafood doesn't happen to be your thing, the veal and pasta dishes provide enticing alternatives. Among the latter, Farfalle con Funghi is a particular favorite. Bowtie pasta is tossed with grilled portobello, cromini and porcini mushrooms. Fresh tomatoes are added, a little roasted garlic, a splash of olive oil and sherry wine... then this lovely recipe is garnished with broccoli spears and fresh herbs.

The dessert cart is filled with an assortment of tempting goodies, most of which are flown in frozen from Italy. The two exceptions are a benchmark tiramisu, which is made on the premises, and a so-so apple tart prepared in a local woman's kitchen. Whatever the state of your sweet tooth, however, be sure to top off your meal here with a strong cup of coffee or espresso.

When it comes to more potent liquid libations, you have two options. This establishment possesses a "New Jersey Wine License," which means that you may purchase Garden State wines by the bottle ONLY. No knock against our local vintners, but I would urge you to go with option number two: BYOB. A wine purchased offsite would certainly be of better quality, infinitely more compatible with the food and, undoubtedly, save you a substantial amount of long green. Either a medium-priced Chianti or Pinot Grigio should fill the bill nicely.

Unfortunately, this is yet another establishment that sees fit to rattle off its list of daily specials sans prices--which are inevitably more expensive than regular menu items. Thus, should you desire cost clarification, feel free to interrupt your server's noble recitation whenever you choose. This is considered perfectly good form... and solid restaurant savvy.

But trust me on this... You're going to like Villa Amalfi. It's one of those diner-friendly restaurants that will keep you coming back for more. The food is immensely satisfying, the atmosphere is grown-up without being stuffy and the price is right. If my wife and I lived in the area, we'd be chowing down here on a regular basis. Buon Appetito!

Hours: 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m. daily
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: In small rear dining room only
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Valet
Price: Appetizers: $4.95 - $9.95; Pastas: $10.95 - $13.95; Entrees: $13.95 - $19.95; Desserts: $4.95

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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