Matt Brunozzi grew up in a food-loving family.
His family heritage is Italian, and there were the traditional staples at Sunday dinner. But when the family dined out, his parents would encourage Matt and his siblings to be adventurous and try new dishes and cuisines.
Brunozzi says he's known since he was 10 or 12 he'd grow up to be a chef. And now that he's grown, Brunozzi still likes to play with his food. So he doesn't mind putting in the long hours as executive chef at Annata Wine Bar in Hammonton.
"My parents cooked, but they also let us try new things when we would go out to dinner," he recalls. "I was out to dinner with them Monday night (the only night Annata is closed) and my dad was telling a story about when I was young, 5 or 6, and I would order things that typically a kid wouldn't, and the servers would be amazed when I left a clear plate."
Annata, which means vintage year in Italian, was his brother's idea, although Matt says his siblings have talked about opening a restaurant together since high school. Philip Brunozzi is a wine aficionado with big ideas. The restaurant's wine list - with at least 170 options displayed on rosewood racks, many available by the glass - won an award of excellence from Wine Spectator in 2010.
Phillip Brunozzi takes care of the wine selection while Matt runs the kitchen and their sister, Jackie, is in charge of the front of the house and manages the party bookings. Phillip's wife, Heather, also helps him with the business side of things, seeing as Jackie and Phillip both have full-time sales jobs besides the restaurant.
The Hammonton location - near a few of New Jersey's own vineyards and right along the path many people take traveling to and from the shore - is perfect. Matt Brunozzi loves the happy-go-lucky attitude vacationers bring with them whether going or coming. And it creates a welcome environment for specials such as New England lobster roll sliders, he says.
"I think it's more fun to eat lobster on a roll," Brunozzi says. "It's definitely a higher-end ingredient and it takes the stuffiness out of it; instead of lobster on a surf and turf, you get that same goodness, only on a hotdog bun. It's a more playful way of eating it."
Brunozzi uses the same quality lobster one would for a surf and turf dinner, but the playful presentation makes it more vacation fare, he says. But since it is lobster, he uses a tarragon flavored aioli – which is basically a fancy word for flavored mayonnaise, he says - because tarragon adds a bit of a bite and its earthiness plays well with the creaminess of the mayo.
Brunozzi sees no problem offering seafood at his landlocked restaurant. If the eatery has a reputation for cleanliness and fresh ingredients, he says he would even order his favorite unusual food - octopus - in a diner.
"I'm big on octopus. I think it's something that, if the average person going out to dinner was not scared away by the idea, I think more people would eat. It eats like steak, really tender with no fishiness," he says. "If I see it on a menu I'll try it if I know the place has a reputation for freshness. There's so many great fresh seafood and meat purveyors, I don't think location should dictate what you order."
When it comes to lobster, freshness is key, Brunozzi says. He recommends getting it live - smaller lobsters are younger, so their meat is more tender - and cooking it in rapidly boiling water for 7 to 9 minutes, or until the shell turns a bright red. Then plunge it into an ice water bath for 7 to 8 minutes to cool it enough to work with.
You can use the shells, plus any shrimp husks you may have frozen, to make fish stock. Just add water, an aromatic trio such as celery, onions and carrots, bay leaves, pepper corns, kosher salt and that essential tarragon and let it cook down a few hours.
But nowadays, you can get a fresh-steamed lobster at the store, he says. And if you trust your grocer, there's no harm in saving yourself a step and getting pre-cooked meat.
Annata Wine Bar offers a fine selection of Italian favorites including a gnocchi duo with brown butter sage sauce and creamy tomato spinach bisque; and the house take on eggplant parmesan, with floured (not breadcrumbed) fried eggplant layered with ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, house marinara sauce and spices. And Brunozzi enjoys putting his signature twist on guilty pleasures such as filet mignon carpaccio on crostini, with anchovies and chili powder over a bed of arugula, dressed with truffle oil, capers and lemon juice.
Matt Brunozzi describes it as a "white tablecloth restaurant," and there's that Wine Spectator award. But if you're stopping by for a New England lobster roll slider, feel free to wear your best vacation attire. Matt Brunozzi recommends a glass of Robert Mondavi or Schlink Haus Riesling to wash it down.
Contact Felicia Compian:
New England Lobster Roll Sliders
•4 egg yolks
•2 lemons, juiced and zested
•2 cloves minced garlic
•1 tablespoon fresh tarragon
•1 teaspoon kosher salt
•1/2 teaspoon fresh black pepper
•1 1/2 cups 90/10 vegetable/olive oil blend
•1/2 cup water
In a food processor, combine egg yolks, lemon juice and zest, garlic, tarragon, salt and pepper and pulse until smooth. Slowly drizzle in oil, then water. Reserve and chill.
•8 1 to 1 1/4 pound Maine lobsters, cooked, shelled and chilled
•1/2 small red onion, minced
•2 ribs celery, minced
•1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
•1 cup lemon tarragon aioli
•1 dozen potato slider buns
•2 ounces butter
Combine lobster meat, red onion, celery, Old Bay and lemon-tarragon aioli in a small mixing bowl. Set aside in refrigerator for 1 hour.
In a griddle pan over medium heat, melt butter and place slider buns cut-side-down for 2 minutes or until buns are toasted golden. Spoon 1/4 cup (2 ounces) of lobster roll mix on each slider bun.
Serve with cole slaw, french fries and your favorite summer ale or a crisp riesling.
Servings: 5 or 7