CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - At times, there were so many people, we could barely see the room. At times, there was so much food, we could barely see the table.

The pace slowed down as the last few tables of early birds finished their meals, had their leftovers packaged to go, and the regular dinner crowd began to filter in. The noise level quickly dropped from a loud roar to that low murmur that fills a room when people are trying to talk and eat at the same time. That seems to be the norm at Nino's in Cape May Court House.

A loaf of sesame topped bread was served with a plate of dipping sauce. In this case, a spicy marinara with extra garlic, herbs and capers. We could have finished the loaf and the plate of thick sauce, but as we saw other tables being served, we began to realize how much food was on its way to our table.

Entrees are served with a choice of soup or salad. Our salads arrived in those small, woven wood salad bowls that have been used to serve salad family style for generations. Only, our salads were served individually. The party of six next to us was served family style.

Chopped iceberg, a few grape tomatoes, a thick slice of cucumber and loads of sliced black California olives finished the plate. The blue cheese dressing had good-size pieces of blue cheese and the house Italian was creamy and slightly sweet.

Steamed clams ($8.95) were simply prepared in a sea of butter and broth. Slightly sandy, but mostly bigger than the littlenecks we were expecting, they were tender and definitely tasted fresh. A family sampler ($9.95) held enough fried food for four, with large ravioli, mozzarella triangles, onion rings, and chicken wings served with a slightly different marinara dipping sauce. The wings were seriously overcooked and dry; the other items crisp and properly cooked.

On the fried trio ($18.95) we sampled lightly breaded and perfectly deep-fried filets of flounder and jumbo shrimp served with cocktail and tartar sauces. The clam strips were fried not to a golden brown, but to what my dining companion described as "two seconds away from being burned." Much darker than the other items on the plate, they remained behind as we picked around them.

We couldn't believe our eyes when we saw our server coming towards us with a plate of gnocchi, broccoli di rabe, and chicken piled higher than a '60s beehive hairdo. The gnocchi Genovese ($18.95), served in a painted, oversized pasta bowl, was so intimidating we barely put a dent in the massive dish. There was enough pasta for a few more meals at home. Made with garlic, oil, and sharp provolone, it immediately brought back memories of those family meals that included so much food, you had to loosen your belt just to keep up.

The menu at Nino's is that old-style listing of similar veal or chicken specialities; traditional seafood dishes, broiled or fried; and familiar sauteed classics. A note on the menu advises because everything is made on the premises in limited quantities, Nino's may run out of certain items from time to time. Small wonder everyone else came so early.

The kid's menu ($6.50 to $8.95) has a large selection including ravioli, penne, or spaghettini pastas. Chicken parmigiana, shrimp in the basket, fried flounder, or chicken fingers also are on offer.

The dining room has that family feel - sunshine yellow walls covered with family photos and assorted bric-a-brac. The room itself is cafeteria-big, not rowhouse-chic, which accounted for the noise level when it filled up.

The diners around us knew to bring an assortment of wines to go with each course. Everyone left with bundles of unfinished foods. Like dining at nonna's house, the portions were simply outrageous.

While we can't claim all the food was the best we have ever eaten, Nino's certainly will please many local dinners with its friendly staff, comfortable dining room, reasonable prices, and super-sized portions of food. The option to bring your own wine is also a plus; it seemed like every table in the room had a bottle or two.

As we waddled out of the dining room with packages of food, we saw a few clever families and their young children dining outside on the less hectic, covered patio. What a smart way to extend the season and enjoy a civilized, open-air meal.

Nino's Family

Restaurant

16 S. Main Street, Cape May Court House

Phone: 609-465-6300

Hours: Lunch from 11 a.m., early bird specials 3 to 5 p.m., dinners from 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays

Rating:

Liquor license: BYO

Credit cards: most major

Disabled access: Yes

Price range: appetizers $5.95 to $9.95, entrees $11.95 to $25.95

Our bill for two: $65 plus tip