What if you had a couple of aunts who lived in the Italian countryside in a charming farmhouse, terrific cooks who went to the marketplace every day to pick and choose fresh ingredients, and cook them up for dinner each night? Even if you were so lucky, unless you lived near them, you could not enjoy their delicious food very often.
Problem solved! You need not travel to Italy in search of family members. Claudette Herring and Lauren Phillips, co-owners/chefs, will gladly fill in for those relatives you wish you had, and warmly welcome you to their restaurant, Via 45, right on Broad Street in Red Bank, treating you like famiglia.
The room is eclectic and cozy, with intentionally mismatched chairs and tables and a large bookcase with photographs and mementos. The food is honest, rustic Italian, with some nice flourishes, and the menu changes daily to reflect whatever catches the eye and imagination of the ladies at the helm.
We opted for a “special” appetizer: A head of Grilled Romaine Lettuce ($15); charred on an open flame to impart a mild smokiness, and served with a blue cheese dressing, slices of tomato and raw onion. The dish was unique and tasty, but we wished the dressing had been just a bit thicker, less diluted.
Stracciatella ($11), Italian egg drop soup, a large steaming bowl of chicken stock, egg, sautéed spinach, and parmesan cheese, was flavorsome, deeply-satisfying, and worthy of a shout-out.
A generous order of Mussels Bianco ($16), was perfectly steamed: good-sized, sweet, plump and grit free, in a broth of garlic, lemon and white wine, but one of my guests found the broth to be somewhat “oily” for his taste.
We enjoyed the softly breaded and fried Calamari Fritti ($16). The large rings were tender, not rubbery, the accompanying marinara dipping sauce lighter in body than the traditional chunkier style.
Via 45 is a BYO, which afforded me and my guests the opportunity to bring in some interesting wines and make pairings on the spot. The first two we chose were white: a hard-to-find 2011 Marcassin Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma) did not meet expectations with an off-putting nose, and too much oak for my taste; 2012 Gerard Boulay Sancerre La Cote (Sauvignon Blanc), with a good balance of acidity, minerality and fruit, paired well with the appetizer courses.
A special of the night, Lunetti ($24), round pasta pouches filled with cheese and truffle, and bathed in a light pesto/cream sauce with cheese and peas, was rich; easily shared by more than one diner.
Our favorite pasta, Penne Norma ($24), a classic Sicilian dish with chunks of toothsome eggplant, a rich plum tomato sauce and basil, got raves from all at our table. Market-fresh peasant food – irresistible.
These dishes were paired with a 1996 G. Mascarello Monprivato Barolo, which got mixed reviews, some liking it, others finding it austere, overly acidic and drying out. Not so the 1997 Montevetrano, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and aglianco, which had a nose of cherries, tobacco and earth, and far more fruit.
A savory Roasted Chicken ($28) done with rosemary and lemon/white wine sauce, and plated with asparagus and roasted potatoes, was a great rustic preparation: earthy, simple and satisfying.
A sizeable portion of Sesame Crusted Salmon ($28) with a balsamic reduction glaze and a side of “Chef’s Vegetables” (sautéed medley of local carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, lentils and zucchini) was quite good, but would have been even better with less cook time.
A nightly special of thick slices of rare Lamb ($37) was drizzled with the same balsamic reduction and plated with a somewhat similar Chef’s Vegetables. The tenderness of the lamb was exceptional.
A standalone bottle of 1978 Ch. Palmer, was the wine of the night. Considering the age and the reputation of the vintage, we were not expecting the generous amount of elegant fruit and velvety mouthfeel. This wine was at its peak with no signs of decline yet.
We followed with a pair of California Cabernets: 2002 Bond Matriarch, which cried out for more time to breathe, as it was closed and unyielding when first poured. I didn’t love it. Conversely, a 2005 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was too soft, even flabby, to generate much interest.
If you still have room, three of the house-made desserts included a flourless chocolate cake, a light and airy angel food cake, and our favorite, biscotti with zabaglione lightened with whipped cream and immense local strawberries, dead ripe and juicy.
From the welcoming greeting, the homey décor, attentive service, tableside visit from one of the chefs to make sure all was enjoyed, and of course, the rustic, good-tasting dishes, an evening spent at Via 45 is the next best thing to being with family in the hills of Italy.
45 Broad St.
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
This article was first published in the June 8-June 15, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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