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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@verizont.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Villaggio Trattoria
104 Yardville - Allentown Road
Yardville, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 585-7277

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Have you ever been led astray by some overzealous, hyperbolizing restaurant critic? Show up at a highly-touted eatery expecting fish... only to find "foul"? I have -- both before and after becoming a professional hired belly -- on more than just a few occasions. Not that a number of my colleagues don't tell the truth... They just don't, in my opinion, tell the WHOLE truth... or they see fit to embellish it for their own purposes.

A few of these thoughts spring to mind as I glance at Faith Bahadurian's critique of Villaggio Trattoria (Princeton Packet, 6/6/03). "Step inside the door," she tells us, "and you're transported to Iccara, Sicily, the ancient name for the sunny seaside village that was the birth place of owners Giovanni and Phyllis Balsamo." She then proceeds to wax positively lyrical about John Albright's large mural framed by broken brick walls, clusters of wrought ironwork, and various other decorative adornments. "Above, a black ceiling twinkles with lights, as if we're dining in an outdoor piazza at night."

All of this is true, of course... up to a point. The proprietors have supplemented their 17-year-old pizza business with an adjoining trattoria on the site of a former gas station; and the result is not only quite eye-catching but has also been extremely successful from a monetary standpoint as well. However, to hear Ms. Bahadurian tell the tale, Villaggio crackles with a rustic romanticism just made for an intimate tête-à-tête... but think again.

Should you happen to put in an appearance on a madcap Friday or Saturday evening, I guarantee that you will find the atmosphere infinitely more raucous than romantic. Large, boisterous parties will be very much in evidence... ditto their rambunctious progeny. And even though you arrive on time for your reservation, chances are you'll still spend some time cooling your heels in the narrow hallway between the pizzeria and the restaurant proper.

Also be advised that the proprietors and members of the wait staff spend a considerable amount of time playing musical tables & chairs to accommodate their peripatetic populace, which only adds to the general pandemonium. On one occasion, my wife and I were seated in the smaller of the two dining rooms along with a number of other couples and one party of four... Suddenly, along comes the moving committee and, you guessed it, the next thing we know, the diminutive space is inundated with a force of fourteen, over half of whom are under the age of ten. So much for culinary and/or conversational intimacies.

Consider yourself forearmed. This is a bustling, noisy, happy kind of eatery. Go with the proper attitude, preferably in the company of a gregarious group, and you'll add your own significant contribution to the organized chaos. On the other hand, take Ms. Bahadurian's somewhat misleading comments at face value -- without reading between the lines -- and you'll be in for a rude awakening.

But on to the food... Don't expect a great deal of subtlety from the kitchen. Be that as it may, however, the generous portions of robust Italian fare generally acquit themselves reasonably well, and doggy bags are much in evidence. Trust me, unless you have the appetite of a ravening hyena, you will undoubtedly be enjoying a substantial lunch and/or dinner the following day.

Given the more than ample apportionments and the fact that soup or salad is included with your entrée selection, appetizers -- most of which could easily satisfy three or more -- seem entirely superfluous. Still, if you're dining with a large party, ordering several starters and passing them around will certainly add to your enjoyment.

The bruschetta ($5.99), for example, is gargantuan... a mountainous epicenter of chopped tomatoes and seasonings surrounded by thick wedges of perfectly toasted bread. The asparagus rollatini ($7.99) is equally enormous -- and delicious. Three bundles of tender spears are folded in the loving embrace of thin slices of salami & melted Fontina cheese and accompanied by coins of crisp polenta.

Among the salads (add $1.99 for the addition of grilled chicken), the Siciliana ($7.99) -- mixed greenery dressed with tomatoes, scallions, fresh mozzarella, kalamata olives, and basil -- is very nice, as are the Caesar ($6.99) and the antipasto ($7.99). The Siena ($7.99) -- tortellini with romaine, green beans, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, and pecorino cheese tossed with a balsamic-olive oil dressing -- isn't bad either, but the tortellini is as cold as a witch's toenail (as opposed to "slightly chilled") and decidedly pasty on the palate.

And speaking of greenery... when it comes to the aforementioned choice between soup or salad, I'd definitely opt for the former. Both the spinach & sausage ($1.95 extra) -- sporting a tomato-based broth awash with morsels of carrots & onions -- and the vegetable soup exhibit marvelous depths of flavor, whereas the house salad, mixed greens topped with shredded carrots, is strictly generic.

Entrées offer diners a slew of possibilities. You may, for example, pick your favorite pasta -- cavatelli, penne, cappellini, rigatoni, fettuccine, linguine, etc. -- and match it up with an appropriate sauce: marinara ($7.99), white clams ($12.99), pesto ($8.99), Bolognese ($9.99), or arrabbiata ($7.99). Then, of course, there are the so-called "Pasta Classics": lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, manicotti, stuffed shells, sausage with pepper & onion (all $9.99); "Ravioli Delights": lobster ($15.99), spinach ($14.99), portobello ($11.99); and, finally, "Gourmet Pasta" and "Seafood Pasta." Get the picture? And we haven't even mentioned the fish, chicken, veal, pork, beef, or pizza potentialities as yet. If you suffer from occasional bouts of decidophobia, you may be in for a long evening.

And bear in mind that just as the portion sizes are generous to a fault, so also are the allocations of sauces that accompany them. The vegetable lasagna ($13.99), for instance, promises a "puttanesca sauce drizzle." The drizzle, however, is more of a deluge. And while the sauce is quite excellent and obviously freshly made, the lasagna itself is on the soggy side, an indication that it has undoubtedly been frozen and reheated.

The grouper marechiaro ($13.99), also presented puttanesca-style, has infinitely more to offer. The filet is beautifully sautéed, tender and flaky; but, once again, it is the unwilling victim of a heavy-handed saucier. If you prefer your finny fare in a less convoluted state, you might consider the flounder oreganata ($12.99), a simply broiled filet topped with a sprinkling of seasoned breadcrumbs and delicate kiss of Chablis sauce.

The veal sorrentina ($15.99) -- veal medallions sautéed in sherry wine sauce and topped with slices of breaded eggplant, prosciutto, and mozzarella -- also pledges a "touch" of marinara, which, of course, materializes as a torrent. In this case, however, the various ingredients, including the fork-tender veal, are well able to hold their own against the onslaught.

Despite a few lapses, entrées listed on the regular menu never completely miss the mark. Indeed, if you happen to be the proud possessor of a hearty appetite for heartier fare, you will surely depart both sated and satisfied. I would suggest, however, that you give heed to the recitation of daily specials, as these, in my opinion, represent the kitchen's finest and most sophisticated work.

An incredibly flavorful rack of veal ($19.95) accompanied by a first-rate risotto is certainly a strong indication that this restaurant's lofty reach does not exceed its grasp. And the very same may be said for the medallions of veal, pork, and beef ($19.95). This culinary combo is quite popular in Europe but rarely seen on menus in this country. At Villaggio, though, it is pulled off with style, as all participants are exceedingly tender and invigorated with a rich -- and slightly over the top for my taste -- gorgonzola cream sauce.

Given this establishments history, pizza -- either tradizionali or speciali -- is always a viable option. And if not everyone at your table is so inclined, go for one of the individual 10-inch brick oven representatives. Especially noteworthy is the capricciosa ($8.95), a hand-tossed crust topped with Genoa salami, prosciutto, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and black olives. Fantastico!

Given all that you have probably ingested, desserts, all made off campus, are completely de trop. Still, if your stomach has not yet been sufficiently gastronomically challenged, the apple cake garnished with vanilla ice cram ($5.95) is certainly worth a whirl. Confirmed chocoholics would do well to cast their lot with the chocolate mousse cake ($5.95). Good luck.

Villaggio Trattoria possesses its own unique brand of charm; and, needless to say, food of this quality -- and at these prices -- is getting increasingly difficult to come by. So I have no doubts that if my wife and I resided in the area, and I were not otherwise engaged as NJO's restaurant critic, we would be chowing down here several times a month.

Just be aware that weekends often resemble a soirée at an Elks' convention; service can be spotty -- we once actually had to send out a search party for our waitress -- and the pace at which items emerge from the bowels of the kitchen can be slower than a herd of turtles. Come on a (comparatively) quiet weekday evening and your chances for a successful dining experience will be greatly enhanced.

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 11:30 p.m.; Sun, 12:00 noon - 10:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Onsite and ample street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.villaggidiccara.com

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