By Bob Sacks
I normally avoid going to a restaurant when it first opens, since the kitchen and front of the house are usually still working out the kinks, and the food and service can be hit or miss until they get up to speed.
However, my curiosity to try Nettie’s on Asbury Avenue in Tinton Falls, outweighed my desire to wait, so I decided to have dinner there after they had been open for little more than one week. One reason for my eagerness was the reputation of the chef / co-owner Chris Calabrese, an alumnus of some well-respected Jersey Shore restaurants: Nicholas, Ama and Porta. Along with his wife/co-owner Tania Kalian Calabrese, who has also worked in the restaurant industry for many years, it seemed that their combined expertise would provide for a good experience right out of the gate, and I was not disappointed.
Housed in the former Luigi’s, the spacious two-room interior has been freshened up, as well as brightened considerably with the addition of clever mid-century modern lighting fixtures, remodeled chairs, and a beautiful new bar. By shrewdly hiring experienced pros for serving and bar tending, the service, food, and drink were already confident and smooth throughout our entire meal. The concept is Italian, but with a finessed contemporary flair, and plenty of small plate offerings to allow for sharing and sampling.
A good-sized globe of house-made Mozzarella ($8), served properly at room temperature, was creamy and flavorful, and paired perfectly with an order of silky Marinated Red Peppers ($7), which were also house-made. Indeed, many of the key ingredients are made on-site. Along with these two appetizers, we also enjoyed a plate of smooth, almost sweet, uncured Niman Ranch (domestic) Prosciutto ($14), which had been shaved into thin translucent slices, and exhibited no excessive saltiness.
I was impressed with the broad selection of vegetables, served here tapas style as appetizers. Potatoes Nettie ($10) are not to be missed. These luscious croquettes, a mix of Quadrello di Bufala cheese and mashed potatoes, are formed into a small ball which is lightly coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. The crisp outside, devoid of any oiliness, gives way to the soft, rich center.
An engaging preparation of Roasted Fennel ($11) was served with honey, in-house ricotta, a hint of Chili flake, and parsley Gremolata (a classic condiment made from chopped parsley, garlic, and lemon zest. Often served with meat dishes, here the Gremolata elevated this humble vegetable to a whole new level.
Light as a feather Fried Hen of the Woods Mushrooms ($12), a novel preparation seasoned with Za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice made from thyme, toasted sesame seeds, and sumac) which imparted an earthy, citrusy quality, were quite special, and might even win over folks who think of mushrooms as an innocuous go-with.
Further proof of the kitchen’s deftness with vegetables was evidenced by the Roasted Mushrooms with Toasted Farro ($10). Cremini mushrooms were diced and cooked with the creamy, perfectly chewy grain, making for a very enjoyable dish.
Pastas are house-made and we chose an excellent Cacio E Pepe ($11): just al dente spaghetti, aged Parmigiano Reggiano and black pepper, but very well executed. Proof that less is more. Spaghetti Alla Ama- triciana ($13) with a savory red sauce, house-cured pork, and Calabrian Chili, was also deeply satisfying, and not at all heavy. We also enjoyed Cavatelli ($14) presented with sweet sausage and crunchy broccoli rabe.
Although we enjoyed everything we tasted, Nettie’s Vinegar Chicken ($19) was a standout. Half a free-range chicken came with a pan roasted breast, and breaded and fried leg and thigh. Red peppers, poblanos, and a splash of vinegar tie ever y- thing together. My DOTN (dish of the night).
A full service bar offers classic and original cocktails, seasonal infusions, wines, and beers. 2017 Tenuta Rapitala Grillo ($14/40), a fresh, light Sicilian white from the indigenous Grillo grape, was fruity and light, but with enough body to complement many of the vegetable appetizers. Staying with Sicily for our red, a very good 2016 Tami Nero d’Avola ($13/48) from the highly respected producer, Arianna Occhipinti, had lots of fruit and body to pair well with the pastas and chicken.
Desserts are also made in house. Bombolini ($11), little pillow-like doughnuts, with olive oil-infused whipped cream, were delicious, as was the Almond Cake with unctuous fig preserves (also house-made).
It’s not often a new restaurant is ready for prime time so quickly, but Nettie’s certainly is. If it’s this good after only being open a week, I have to think it will merit an even higher rating in the near future, but it would be a mistake to wait. Sharing so many tasty dishes added to an evening of fun. This place is going to be very popular. I’m headed back as soon as I can.
5119 ASBURY AVE.
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Follow him on Ins- tagram @dinnerwithbob.
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