Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Restaurant review: Bel Paese Cranford

"I am a pasta fanatic." Those were the words of Bel Paese's owner, Enzo, as he took our order and told us about his specialties. A native Italian, you can tell Enzo loves what he does and has a real passion for food. And he was right. His was some of the best pasta around.

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

We often passed this little restaurant on our way to other spots in Cranford. One day a co-worker of mine mentioned it and siad the food was terrific. Since then, it's been on my must-try list. So Friday night, we decided to give it a shot.

We made a reservation and grabbed a bottle of our favorite Italian wine. Upon entering, we were seated at small table toward the back. By day, Bel Paese is a deli, so don't expect elegant decor. It's clean and the service friendly, but it's casual - you could bring kids here without worrying. One thing I noticed immediately was the giant silver barrel of Extra Virgin Olive Oil on the counter and the huge espresso machine behind it. I had a good feeling about this place...

We were served some bread and butter as we looked over the menu. Next time, I'll skip the bread. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. Once we ordered, we were brought two servings of bruschetta. The tomato topping was delicious, but the bread was again a bit lacking.

The menu is extensive. You'll find all the traditional dishes most people look for in an Italian restaurant: Chicken and Veal Parmigiana, Penne with vodka sauce, fried calamari. You'll also find some more unusual preparations of veal, chicken, fish and shrimp, as well as numerous pastas. Most appetizers are about $10 and most of the entrees are $15-$20. There are also a number of specials.

To start, we chose two appetizers off the main menu. One was a Stuffed artichoke and the other was Bocconcino al Forno. The Artichoke was huge and packed with breadcrumbs, garlic, more garlic, some pine nuts and some provolone cheese. It was delicious - did I mention the garlic? The Bocconcino were simply divine. There were four sizeable rounds of fresh, homemade mozzarella, each topped with a piece of prosciutto and a sprinkle of garlicky breadcrumbs. Around them on the plate was a bit of homemade tomato sauce. The whole thing was baked until the breadcrumbs were toasted and the cheese warmed through but not melted. The flavor was spectacular. Both appetizers were large portions - one would have sufficed for the two of us.

Then came the main course. My husband order a special that had veal scallopine with portobello mushrooms, peas, shrimp, melted cheese and tomato sauce. It came with a generous side of penne with the same sauce. At first glance, I noted that there was a good amount of mushrooms on it, but it looked like there weren't many shrimp - Jeff corrected me and said there were about 10 shrimp on the dish! I tasted it (twice) and it was excellent. The veal was tender, the mushrooms cooked perfectly. Definitely something we'd get again.
I ordered a pasta special - after all, Enzo is a pasta fanatic. It was called Boscaiola - homemade fettucine with crumbled sausage, bacon, parsley, mushrooms, egg, and cheese. One bite and I was back in Rome on my honeymoon. This pasta was delicious. There's no comparison to the stuff that comes out of a box - this was homemade - and fresh! And the flavors in the dish combined perfectly. The portion was huge too. About halfway thru his veal, we decided that the veal would travel better so Jeff pushed his plate aside and happily helped me thru my pasta. We were both stuffed and took half of his veal and about a quarter of my pasta home.

We had no room for dessert, but they do offer an extensive list of Italian desserts. We each had an espresso - reasonably priced at only $2.

If you find yourself in Cranford, let Enzo take care of you. It's obvious that he has a passion for what he does. Don't let the casual atmosphere alter your expectations. Try the pasta. I will certainly go back any time I miss Italy!

Enzo - if you're reading this, we will be back and we will bring friends and family. We felt welcome in your restaurant and your pasta is simply delicious. Thanks for a great meal!

Bel Paese on Urbanspoon

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