A Chocolate Temptation Cake was rich, but light, making for an excellent sweet finale for the meal. Bob Sacks

Frequently, readers of The Two River Times, acquaintances and friends will alert me to newly opened restaurants, those which have new chefs, or are serving revamped menus, in case they may have slipped under my radar. It’s always fun when a new dining experience turns out to be very enjoyable, so it can be added to my list of go-to places for myself and to share with other food lovers.

My recent visit to Gaia Bistro in Monmouth Beach, suggested by a friend, was one such occasion. No small part of the pleasure was in meeting and talking with the chef/owner Michael Tornillo. He was not aware of the intended purpose of our visit, other than dining there that evening, so we received no special treatment beyond what anyone else would, yet it was special. He has a broad background in many areas, not just in the restaurant business, and is even a published author under the family name M.C. Mancino – truly a renaissance man! Many dishes are based on his family recipes and the homey, satisfying style is quite evident.

We started with Black Truffle Burrata with fire-roasted sweet peppers ($18). The fragrant aroma of the black truffles paired beautifully with the light, soft and creamy burrata, and the savory roasted peppers provided a tangy taste and textural counterpoint. The dish was generous enough in size to easily feed two as an appetizer. 

An Apulian Meatball ($18), stuffed with taleggio cheese and mortadella sausage, arrived as a very large meatball surrounded by a rich, tangy tomato sauce that we later learned came from a beloved family recipe passed down from Chef Michael’s mother. The sauce was thick, but not overly so, and it was impossible to resist soaking up with toasted bread until it was finished; another dish large enough to be easily shared. A favorite!

A selection of four salads are offered, from which we chose a simple but refreshing Farmhouse Salad ($13.95). Spring greens, tomato, cucumber, sweet onion, with a shallot vinaigrette, provided a nice taste of summer. One of the other choices was an interesting sounding Shopska Salad ($13.95) composed of Bulgarian feta, tomato, cucumber and parsley with a vinaigrette dressing. This is considered a national dish of Bulgaria and will merit our attention on a return visit.

We opted for Pasta Puttanesca ($23.95) from a tempting selection of fresh pastas. This very large serving of tagliatelle-shaped semolina noodles, was mixed with capers, Kalamata olives and pieces of eggplant, making for a hearty and flavorful intermezzo course, but it could also serve well as an entrée. The savory sauce and tender pasta were the highlight of this dish.

There were 10 different chicken-based entrees (all $24.95) offered with a choice of linguine, penne or angel hair pasta as a side, including Marsala, Milanese, Elba, Sorrentino and Tuscano, to name but a few. One of my guests was drawn to the piccata preparation, which was served as two very generous pieces of moist and tender chicken, sauced with lemon, capers and white wine, served over a bed of angel hair pasta. She deemed it very tasty!

Four House Specialty choices on the a la carte section of the menu were each priced at $38.95. Citrus-marinated Seared Halibut called to me, and it proved to be my dish of the night. 

The seared halibut was served with an addictive square of fried polenta. Bob Sacks

A thick slab of perfectly cooked halibut, done with a mandarin rum reduction, tarragon and sweet chili, sat atop of a square of fried Spanish polenta. The polenta, crusty on the outside and soft and luxurious on the inside, was a perfect accompaniment to the fish. Don’t miss this!

As if there were not enough choices, a menu section titled Chef’s Specials included some beef dishes for two, and a Lobster & Crab Taglioni ($48) served with fresh semolina pasta, grape tomatoes, beurre blanc and citrus zest. This is billed as “Our best-selling dish,” and is another reason for a return visit.

For dessert, we found just enough room to sample the Chocolate Temptation Cake ($14) which combined chocolate and hazelnut creams, hazelnut crunch and a chocolate glaze. A sweet ending to our meal!

Gaia Bistro is BYOB. It seemed fitting to bring Italian vino to pair with the dishes, so we brought a 2020 Pra Otto Soave Classico for our white wine; light, with fresh acidity and tropical fruit flavors, it was a good foil for the appetizers. Our other bottle, a 2016 Calfaggio Chianti Classico Riserva, 100 % Sangiovese grape, had a classic tobacco nose, with cherries on the palate, and provided a nice, fruity, easygoing red wine for the other courses. 

To cover all tastes, Gaia Bistro also serves pizzas and calzones from their separate, but adjacent pizzeria, which offers dine-in or take out as well. The Bistro has a special BOGO menu promotion on Wednesdays; details available on their website or by phone.

Yes, the room is comfortable, and the food very good, but the hands-on approach of Chef Michael Tornillo lifts the experience up another notch. He sincerely wants his guests there to enjoy his creative skills in the kitchen and be able to savor the foods he grew up with in his family’s home, and feel like they are part of the family, too.

He cares, and it shows!

Gaia Bistro
36 Beach Road, Suite 2
Monmouth Beach

Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, writes about food, wine and restaurants in this column. Follow him on Instagram @dinnerwithbob.

The article originally appeared in the October 27 – November 2, 2022 print edition of The Two River Times.