By Bob Sacks |
If you are dreaming of a trip to Italy but it is still a dream due to money or time constraints, you need not venture further than River Road in Rumson for a visit to Undici, a rustic Tuscan farmhouse-style restaurant serving very credible food from that region and well beyond. Once inside the softly lit interior, the Jersey Shore seems far, far away.
The opening appetizer course was sensational. Polpo ($18), chargrilled octopus, was served as one large tentacle and plated with slices of grilled red onions, and a creamy mash of ripe avocado, crunchy pieces of wood-oven roasted almonds and a dash of Calabrian chili. Tender, with no trace of chewiness, the juicy octopus/savory avocado combination was spot-on.
Misticanza ($16) a visually striking salad of mixed baby greens, carrot, ovendried tomato, red onion, huge wafer thin discs of watermelon radish, and a EVOO/Chianti wine vinegar dressing, was a light and refreshing starter.
Different and too interesting sounding to pass up, Cavolfiore ($16), featuring roasted, tricolored heirloom cauliflower, pomegranate seeds, endive, borage, Brillo cheese (a sheep’s milk pecorino from Tuscany), pumpkin seeds, and a tangy vinaigrette dressing, was a mix of crunchy, savory, sweet and mildly salty in almost every bite. Recommended.
A broad selection of wood-fired Pizzas is offered. For a middle course, we chose a Funghi Bianco ($19); cremini mushrooms, buffalo mozzarella, robiola and crispy wisps of sweet onion created a very tasty topping on the bread-like crust. This style of pie tends to lose whatever moderate crispness it starts with, so it must be consumed as soon as served.
Coniglio ($34), Pennsylvania rabbit, cooked Ischia-style (braised with onion, garlic, fresh herbs, tomato and white wine, and small, sweet, aromatic taggiasca olives) was served with a side of creamy risotto.
One guest was very happy with her Branzino ($32), Mediterranean sea bass pan sautéed and plated in a rustic style with capers, lemon, sautéed Swiss chard, spagna beans (lima bean-like Italian butter bean), garlic and those tasty taggiasca olives from Liguria.
From the nightly special offering, a Costato Di Manzo ($32), a generous slab of boneless beef short rib, plated with celery root puree, and some pomegranate seeds, was slow-cooked, lean and tender. Very good.
The wine list is pure Italian, ranging from everyday table wines to rare finds, and so extensive that it runs many, many pages. Indeed, there are so many wines listed that I wanted to take the heavy, leather-covered volume home to study it before returning, since I found it to be far from a quick read! Even wine lovers with a strong grasp of Italian wines should seek advice directly either from Victor Rallo, one of the proprietors and a very savvy curator of the wine list, if he is on-site, or one of the well-versed waitstaff; otherwise it could take too much time to narrow down the selections to make a choice.
I was quite taken with the aptly named Special of Zuppa di Crostaci ($39); a Zuppa di Pesce, without the fish. Half of a Maine lobster, tender calamari rings, clams, shrimp, some of the largest, juiciest black mussels I’ve ever seen, all in a light tomato clam broth, with a crusty piece of lightly charred ciabatta bread on the side, made for a crustacean lovers delight. The shellfish was all perfectly cooked, and the broth deeply flavorful. Contender for dish of the night.
The night of our visit, Massimo Piccin, the charming owner of Podere Sapaio in Bolgheri, was visiting the restaurant, and kindly offered us a tasting of multiple vintages of his wines, which are Bordeaux blends (Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, etc.), with nary a drop of sangiovese! No, he did not know the purpose of our visit that night, he was just trying to promote his vino. We quite enjoyed the 2007 and 2010 vintages and expect the younger wines to be even better with some age. Worth trying! We did order a couple of other glasses from the wine list: 2016 Agricola Punica Samas ($14/glass), a white blend of vermentino and some chardonnay to add some roundness, was very enjoyable. From the same joint venture producer group, Agriciola Punica, 2012 Barrua ($20/glass) a red blend of 85 percent Carignano, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 5 percent Merlot was fruity, almost creamy, and a pleasure to drink.
We were more than pleased with the service, which was gracious, knowledgeable and fun as well. Our waitperson was happy to accommodate any of our wishes and answer all questions regarding the food preparations.
No time for a trip to Tuscany? No problema! Undici in Rumson will transport you there via first class for a couple of hours, and they will feed you very well in the process.
Undici Taverna Rustica
11 W. River Road
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Follow him on Instagram @dinnerwithbob. Read more of his reviews here.
This article was first published in the March 8-15, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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