Saturday, January 19, 2013

Calamari Fra Diavolo from Pizza N' Pasta, Manville, NJ

Next door to a local airfield that flys small aircraft is a bar and grill that has become a local fixture in the town of Manville, New Jersey. I'm talking about a place set up in the format of a bar and grill, but the "grill" portion of the business is really a full-fledged Italian restaurant serving all manner of classic Italian-American favorites. That place is called Pizza N' Pasta.

When I say Pizza N' Pasta is next door to an airfield, I mean right next door- the parking lot overlooks the runway of the Central Jersey Regional Airport- when the weather is nice, you can eat in the outdoor area and watch small aircraft come and go. Since only small aircraft fly there, noise isn't an issue. That said, the place has the atmosphere of a boisterous local sports bar- a bit on the noisy side, but it's the fun, friendly side of noisy. The dining room is close to the busy bar area, but has a little bit of separation- enough that you feel a little privacy, but still part of the fun over at the bar.

The meal started, naturally, with a simple salad and plenty of fresh Italian bread. This wasn't the greatest piece of bread I've ever had, but it was warm, fresh, and homey, with just the right consistency for mopping up leftover sauces- exactly what an Italian bread should be.

A note for the parents out there- the kids portions are fairly big- easily twice (or more) than any of my kids can get through. For the kids pasta dishes- you have a choice of various pastas or ravioli, and either a marinara or a meat sauce. The bits I sampled had pasta that was cooked decently, adn the sauces were actually pretty good- although I preferred the meat sauce to the marinara.

My main dish was a Calamari Fra Diavolo served over angel hair pasta. The sauce was on the loose side- it was really more of a seafood stew than a sauce, but it worked nonetheless. The dish had a hearty amount of squid, and fresh green bell peppers. Fra Diavolo means the dish should be spicy- this dish was quite spicy, topped with a significant amount of hot pepper flakes. Since the liberal dose of heat was sprinkled on top, the heat levels differed from bite to bite. Honestly, even for me, it was a bit heavy handed with the heat- possibly because my very first bite happened to have quite a bit of hot pepper. Later bites were not quite as firey, but I think overall, it was a little bit of overkill. On the plus side, the squid was cooked just right, and there was plenty of it, and the green peppers were the linchpin that brought the dish together- there were very fresh, and sweet, and were not overcooked- so they still had some texture to them. Their sweet and bright flavor was a welcome counter to the heat. I felt that if the heat was dialed back one notch, this dish would really work well as a rustic, home-style meal.

To finish the meal, I needed something to cool me down from the fire of my main dish. The Tiramisu clearly fit the bill- a classic Italian dessert that is similar to a sweet cheesecake on a base of espresso-dipped lady fingers. The "chessecake" part is made from a distinctive tasting marscarpone cheese- which is similar to a traditional cream cheese, but more liquid/creamy in texture. I suspect that this Tiramisu may have been brought in rather than made on premises- but if it was, they chose a good product to bring in. It was sweet and creamy, with the bitter notes of coffee rising through and melding with the similar notes in the chocolate sauce. It also came to the table dressed in chocolate sauce and whipped cream, and just looked like a fun way to cool down from a spicy meal.

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