Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rivoli's - Toms River, NJ

So we took the family down to the Jersey Shore to take a look at vacation rentals for the summer. This year's vacation spot is a short walk from the Seaside Heights Boardwalk, made famous (or infamous) on the reality TV show "Jersey Shore". In our experience, the town bears only a passing resemblance to the 24/7 party shown on TV. We've been going there for day trips and short vacation getaways since well before the show brought the shore into the national spotlight. Despite this, we couldn't resist the urge to check out a restaurant featured on the show. After reading the harsh reviews on Yelp, and wondering if we were making a big mistake, we threw caution to the winds, and drove a few minutes inland to Rivoli's in Toms River, New Jersey...

First off, the Yelp community has mixed reviews. There are a few high ratings, but most of the reviews range from bad to worse. We knew that the place specialized in absurdly large portions, so I hoped that the quality would at least be decent, because we would probably end up eating the leftovers for at least another two meals. We rolled up to the restaurant for lunch, and the place seemed empty to the point where we wondered if it was even open.

When we went in, we were immediately greeted by a wall of photos of celebrities that have eaten there. Of course, the very first photos that catch the eye are the strategically placed head-shots of Pauly D and Mike "The Situation" from the cast of "Jersey Shore". Others included comedians/radio hosts Opie and Anthony, who were favorites of mine in my younger, and less "parental" days. The first thing that struck me was that the place was much smaller than I expected. The decor was quite dated, and was showing obvious signs of age and wear and tear. The place could definitely use a little remodeling. The place was empty except for one table, and the wait staff took a minute to notice that we arrived- a little slow, but I give them a (conditional) pass since it looked like they were only just opened for the day, and still getting their bearings (the young lady who ended up as our waitress actually arrived about thirty seconds behind us).

Well, if Pauly D likes Rivoli's that much, I guess we owe it to him to give the place a shot.

This is Rivoli's idea of a "kid's meal" - if your kids eat like Godzilla that is!
My first piece of advice for anyone thinking of taking the family out to Rivoli's is that, if you have young kids who like spaghetti, get one kids portion and split it. We got each of my two girls their own portion of "kid size" spaghetti an meatballs, and it  was enough to feed them several times over. They had some for lunch the next day, one of my in-laws had some for a pick up dinner, and I ended up taking enough to work to make a hearty lunch before we finally vanquished the massive pile of pasta. The tomato sauce had a fresh, acidic tang to it, but seemed to be missing a  little something- I felt that it needed more basil to balance the acidity more. On the plus side, the consistency and texture were right on the money without being oily or watery. The piece of meatball I tried was nice, it had decent flavor, but I really like the texture and density of it.

My wife went for chicken parmigiana over linguini- again enough chicken parm to cause bodily harm, over a mound of linguini that made the kids meal look like, well, a kid's meal. We still haven't finished all the linguini now two days later, and I think we're giving up on it. My wife, who seems to have accepted that she married a crazy person who takes photos of food when we go out to eat, intentionally ordered something simple, just to see if they could get it right. (nice job!) I went for something a little more complicated, because I thought it would be something they could easily mess up or overdo, a balsamic chicken dish- chicken, peppers, onions, mushrooms, and potatoes in a balsamic vinegar sauce. The vinegar could very easily be over-reduced or too overpowering, turning the dish into something cloying and unpleasant...

...but it wasn't. The platter doesn't look very pleasing. but the flavor was right on. Just enough balsamic vinegar tang and sweetness that stayed well within the boundaries. The vinegar was obviously the dominant flavor, but it stayed in balance and did not over-dominate. The chicken may not have been the best cut of meat- there were a few bits of sinew- but it was cooked just right- still moist and juicy.  The mushrooms were a nice counter to the vinegar, but, oddly enough, the potatoes were my favorite part. This was not five star food from the finest New York restaurants, this was decent, hearty, family style food.

As far as prices go, expect to pay $15 - $20 for an entree, but you'll easily get at least two (large) meals out of it. The oversize portions are something of a gimmick- but really, I think the original intention was that the platters should be served family style- drop one or two of these massive platters in the middle of the table and let the family have at it... but over time, they have morphed this into a tribute to gluttony worthy of Adam Richman's Man Vs Food.

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