Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Foodiness

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Restaurant Week Chronicles: (the very belated) Part 2

I realize it’s been more than a week since my first Restaurant Week post. And, no, it is no longer Jersey Shore Restaurant Week–I’m belated. But, I capped off my week by going off-the-menu for Restaurant Week at Monticello’s in Red Bank.

Technically, Monticello’s did not participate in Restaurant Week.  However, it was a new restaurant during the course of that week, so I’m going to count it. Also, I needed something to make Part 1 feel complete. (This was supposed to be a three-party series, but we really wanted to go to Tre Amici in Long Branch, but it never worked out–problem after problem! Someone really didn’t want us to go there! Alas, there will be no “Mockingjay” to my “Hunger Games,” and you will have to settle for a duology.)

Anyway, I apologize now because there are no pictures from Monticello’s. Kevin and I went with a big group of friends we did theater with, so between all the catching up there was no time to stop and take photos (well, not of the food anyway.)

Monticello’s is BYOB, which is great and easy on the wallet, considering the menu’s a bit on the pricey side. The best part, though, is that if you bring in a bottle Cabernet, Rioja, Merlot, Zinfandel or Shiraz, they will make it into sangria using their special house recipe. And it is YUMMY! (We brought Shiraz for ours.)

Unfortunately, from a culinary perspective, that was the best part of the meal (aside from the bread, maybe–piping hot and soft!) Otherwise, I’d say the food was okay at best. I’ll be honest, though, I was quite jealous, because while I didn’t enjoy my food much, everyone around me seemed to love theirs. I even sampled a bit of Kevin’s Duck Breast over Papardelle with a rosemary Merlot sauce, and it was superior to mine.

To start, my friend and I split fried calamari. Now, I will preface this with the fact that I am very, very picky about fried calamari. I only recently even started eating it, and I only like it when it is cooked perfectly. Any rubberiness and I’m out. That being said, I found Monticello’s calamari to be tough to chew and a bit rubbery, though the breading and sauce were tasty. (I finished chewing off the breading before I finished the calamari itself though, which was sort of a weird sensation.) My friend, on the other hand, loved it. So, maybe I’m just picky. (Not maybe, I am picky.)

I still had faith in my entrée, though. I was in a simple mood and went for a very basic dish: gnocchi with pesto. I love both of these things, especially a good, bright, herbal pesto.  This pesto wasn’t that. It was creamy (what?) and very garlicky, but had almost none of the fresh bright crispness that I love from pesto. It felt heavy and hot, not cool and light like a pesto should, especially over something as dense as gnocchi. The gnocchi themselves weren’t great, either, and started to feel to mushy as I ate. I couldn’t finish the dish despite the fact that I was still hungry. Not at all what I was expecting.

However, the evening for me (thankfully) was not about the food, but the company. Good friends, good wine and good conversation can make up for even the worst of meals. (Still, a good meal certainly ups the ante!)

I would give Monticello’s another chance, as long as I stay far away from their pesto sauce and fried calamari. Everyone around me raved about their dishes, and they all had larger, heartier entrées. Maybe that’s the secret to Monticello’s–the Chicken Saltimboca over the pasta with sauce. I’d give it another shot, but I’d go in skeptical.

No time for pictures of food, but always time for pictures of friends--our group at Monticello's



Brunch at Porta

I wrote a post in late February praising Porta Pizza in Asbury Park, but I mentioned that they did much more than just dinner–including weekend brunch.  Well, keeping true to my promise, I checked out their brunch on a cold, drizzly, early Spring Saturday, and I wasn’t disappointed!

I met up with a friend of mine, Carolyn, for what seems to be becoming our semi-monthly (or six-monthly, as the case may be) meetup. And as much as I’ve been waiting to try brunch at Porta, funnily enough, it was her suggestion. (Great minds think alike, I suppose.)  So, this past weekend, we headed to Asbury Park in the rain and the cold to meet up for what turned out to be a spectacular brunch.

Porta serves brunch every Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  Not wanting to be late to the party, Carolyn and I arrived just after 11:30.  I was expecting the place to be packed, but maybe because it’s still relatively unknown, or maybe because the weather was exceptionally atrocious, we were the only two people in the restaurant. People began to trickle in once we were settled in with our cappuccinos, but we seemed to constitute the entire “early” crowd. (By the way–good, big, inviting cappuccinos–and this is coming from someone who can make a cappuccino!)

Porta’s brunch menu is unique and varied, with a mix of their usuals and brunch-only options. They offer sweet and savory, breakfast and lunch, ranging from pizza and salads to french toast and fritattas.

We agreed that the best and only way to do this brunch was to try multiple things and share them.

Luckily, we have similar palates so this did not prove too much of a challenge. We started with a house-cured salmon appetizer with crostinis, marscapone cheese and chervil.

As you can see, I couldn't wait long enough to get a picture before I dug in.

I’m a Jewish girl, New Jersey-born and raised. Lox and cream cheese is pretty much a staple in my life, and I will try almost any and all variations on it. (Lox–smoked, cured salmon–is one of the only seafood I actually like. That, shrimp and fried calamari.)

This one was so good I’m afraid I’ll never be able to eat a regular bagel with lox and cream cheese again.  My first thought when the plate arrived was, “I wish they gave us some lemon to squeeze over the fish.” But as soon as I tasted it, I realized it was already there. The salmon was finished with lemon, olive oil and garlic, and the spicy-citrusy taste was bright and abundant. With the smooth, luscious marscapone and crispy-chewey crosinis, I was in a Jewish-Italian heaven.  I could have ordered three plates of that alone and been perfectly content.

Well, almost…we also ordered lemon-ricotta pancakes which were the lightest, fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever seen. As Carolyn put it, “much more cake than pan.” They were served over ricotta cheese with a vanilla brown butter syrup and macerated plums.  I didn’t expect a big punch of lemon, since in a pancake or similar baked good, the lemon flavor is typically subtle and underlying. But these pancakes packed a lemon punch! The lemon flavor was intense, but not fake, and most definitely a pleasant surprise for a lemon-lover like me.  And, I need to find out how to make such fluffy pancakes.

It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!!!

We had decided we were also going to try their butternut squash pizza, which neither of us had ever seen on the dinner menu, and sounded like quite the savory-sweet experience.  When the waitress informed us they were all out, Carolyn and I looked at each other like sad children for a moment before settling on the roasted tomato fritatta with smoked mozzarella instead.

As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of cooked tomatoes, but they weren’t overpoweringly sweet in this dish.  The arugula served over the fritatta helped too, I’m sure, as did the homemade focaccia that came on the side.  We sat close to the pizza ovens that are out in the open, and I watched the chef make our focaccia bread–the smell was intoxicating to this starving girl, and it looked so yummy! The fritatta was tasty, but ended up overshadowed by the salmon and the pancakes–it’s the only dish we didn’t finish. (Really, we were just too full–and too focused on our pancakes.)

Fritatta with that wonderful-smelling focaccia that made me so hungry!

So, that’s two down for Porta, and I would recommend their brunch to anyone.  I actually really want to take my mom since a lot of their brunch options are seemingly gluten-free, like the fritattas and other egg-inclusive dishes (braised Beluga lentils with quail eggs, for instance.) Even the salmon appetizer–the crostinis tasted great, but they’re really just a vessel for carrying the cheese and the salmon.  They’re not a necessity.  Carolyn ate some of the leftover salmon and cheese once the bread ran out and she agreed, she didn’t miss them.

OK, so next up, I guess I will have to check out Porta’s nightlife.  Or gluten-free pizza Tuesdays.  Or spaghetti and meatballs Sundays. Or… the list goes on.  All I know is I want to go back to Porta over and over again.

Porta Patens Esto. Nulli Claudatur Honesto. “Be the door always open. Be it not closed to any honest person.”

First off, I’d like to apologize for the lag in posting. The last couple of weeks have been utterly crazy for me; I started up working full-time again, but didn’t quit my old job, plus I’m in the rehearsal process for a show that opens in three weeks. So I’m working 6-7 days a week and going to rehearsal, which unfortunately leaves little time to cook or enjoy a nice meal out.

But Monday I had a half day at work, so Kevin and I took the opportunity–and free time–to go out for a nice, sit-down meal. He and I have this little thing we do where we try to go to a new restaurant every month. Monday was our February opportunity though, admittedly, we cheated on this one a bit. We chose to go to Porta in Asbury Park, N.J. It was brand new to him, but I had been there. Just once. And not for dinner. I just went there after work late one night with a friend and we split a pizza and a carafe of their house red wine (more on that later.) So really, I hadn’t experienced Porta to its fullest, so it was still fair.

Porta is a pizzeria by name, but it is so much more than that once you step inside its wide white doors. The building looks like a converted garage, complete with three large bay doors on one end that open up to their patio and outdoor bar (dubbed “Porta National Park”) in the warmer seasons. Inside, Porta is arranged family-style, with large picnic-style tables rather than traditional individual seats. The back wall is lined with antiqued wooden doors, and in clear view sit their wood-fired pizza ovens, imported from Italy, with the open prep and cooking space. Porta also has a large bar, complete with a great wine list and varied beer options. (“Porta” is Italian for “door,” hence the door theme.)

By night, Porta becomes a bar and nightclub complete with a DJ, live music and dancing. But by day (well, Monday evening), it had a unique, modern-classic feel, pumping standards through the sound system rather than Top 40 dance beats. It mixed sophistication with a backyard feel.

But enough of that. Really, this is about the food. And the food is no less unique than the space itself. While the menu is small by normal standards, its anything but boring. Mostly appetizers and pizza with a few pasta options, Porta keeps it simple while keeping it special.

For appetizers, we ordered two salads to share: The Winter Caprazy and the Cavolo Nero. The Winter Caprazy is exactly what it sounds like: a seasonal take on the classic Caprese salad. This one included slow roasted tomatoes, black garlic and fresh oregano.

Full disclosure: I’ve never had black garlic or fresh oregano (only dried.) I’ve been missing out. Black garlic, while it looks a bit scary, is a sweeter, richer cousin to what we know. And fresh oregano blows the dried stuff out of the water. Upon eating it, I got that distinctive bite and slight hit to the sinuses that confirmed I was indeed eating oregano, but the flavor was so much milder and fresher than its spice rack counterpart. Where has this been all my life? Needless to say, everything worked together pretty well, with the roasted tomatoes imparting a sweeter, heartier flavor than the raw version. I don’t love roasted tomatoes, but this definitely made a pretty good winter version of one of my favorite classic Italian salads.

However, I don’t think the Winter Caprazy can hold a candle in creativity next to the Cavolo Nero. Tuscan kale, shaved sunchoke and watermelon radish with garlic crostini and parmigiano reggiano in a lemon-garlic dressing. This was my first introduction to kale, and what a way to start! This definitely makes me want to eat kale more often. My only complaint about this salad would be that the toppings (sunchoke, watermelon radish, garlic croutons) were a bit too scarce. As good as the kale was, it was a bit boring without the accouterments and we left some on the plate once we finished everything else. But it was delicious. I love radishes, so this was a treat to me, especially with how beautiful shaved watermelon radishes are.

Sliced watermelon radish. Photo via SmartSeeds

I need to find some watermelon radishes and use them in everything I make. Everything. They taste great, and they’re gorgeous! (New goal.)

Moving on…

Kevin, being the pizza-lover that he is, obviously could not resist the major part of Porta’s menu: the pizza. He ordered an Italian Stallion with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Gorgonzola, sweet Italian sausage and long hots. (I could insert a joke here about him being an Italian stallion, but I’ll pass for his sake.)

As much as he loves pizza, Kevin hates blue cheese, but he bit the bullet and tried it on this pizza. And he didn’t hate it. Overall, he thought the pizza tasted great, but the generous drizzle of olive oil (and probably the grease from the sausage) made it a little soggy for his liking. He boxed half up to take home and said he’ll try to crisp it up in the oven before eating the leftovers.

I was in a pasta kind of mood that night, so I went ahead and ordered off their small, but not limited pasta menu. I went a little off the beaten path with a wild boar ragu with rosemary papardelle, rosemary, sage, red wine and parmigiano reggiano. If you hadn’t told me this was wild boar, I wouldn’t have known. But I’m so glad I tried it. It’s, unsurprisingly, very similar to pork, but a bit heartier and beefier. Sort of like a delicious pork-beef hybrid all stewed up and served over pasta.

Oh right, the pasta. Between the rosemary papardelle and the rosemary in the sauce, I expected a double whammy of in-your-face rosemary. But instead, it was subtle and underlying and I had to really look for it at times. Still, I ate almost the whole thing. Hearty, warm and inviting. It almost made me forget it was nearly 60 degrees that afternoon.

Pizza; Photo via

Not the Italian Stallion, but another one of Porta'a pizzas. Photo courtesy of Porta Pizza.

And of course, what better to complement a great meal than some house red wine? Porta has a nice Italian wine list, but the standout is their house-made red and white wines, which can be ordered by the glass or the carafe. I’ve been here twice and only ever had one wine–the house red, a Cabernet. I thought about switching it up at dinner, but I figured, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Next time I’ll have to try their house white and eventually branch out to their other wine selections.

Kevin went a more traditionally American route–pizza and beer. Porta seems like the kind of place that would have tons of local and craft beers on hand, but most of their beer list is surprisingly generic. They have a few crafts, including three varieties of Six Point. Kevin had the “Bengali Tiger,” which he said was very pine-y with a citrus finish. He equated it to Pine Sol at one point, which I assumed was a bad thing, but he seemed to enjoy it. I picked up on the pineyness but not as much on the citrus. However, the back of the can did quote William Blake’s “The Tyger.” (Plus one for Six Point.)

Porta’s minimalistic atmosphere and inspired take on locally-sourced ingredients may be far too hip and trendy for some, but I actually found it a relaxing and enjoyable Monday evening. Is Porta a bit hipster? Yes. Are the food, drinks and service worth it despite that? Absolutely. It’s nestled on an obscure little corner of Asbury Park, right between the bustling downtown and the boardwalk and offers a casual retreat that’s still leaps beyond traditional pizzeria fare. So, if you’re looking for an original, quality meal in a quaint, casual environment, head for Porta.

Porta also runs several specials throughout the week, like gluten-free pizza every Tuesday and a 4-course family dinner every Sunday night. They weekend brunch every Saturday and Sunday and, of course, the club/bar scene at night.

I’ll have to check out the nightlife sometime and see if it lives up to the weekday fare. Come summertime I’ll have to give this another go too, of course.

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