EGG HARBOR CITY - The handsome stucco building that housed Tre Figlio for so many years has finally changed hands. On this autumn night, the courtyard outside Assaggio! was decorated with tiny fairy lights on the trees and bushes and hay bales, pumpkins and yellow chrysanthemums were arranged in celebration of the season.
Inside, a lone hostess greeted us from her podium in the chilly foyer. A quick walk to our table and we settled in with a beverage and a menu.
It had been years since our last visit to the same space and the newly renovated dining room, decorated in sage green and dark wood, looked smaller somehow. A nicely-appointed bar gave way to a row of high tops, then a dining room populated with tables and chairs.
A sliced round loaf of bread was served with three toppings; seasoned olive oil, butter, and an Italian version of hummus - a puree made with cooked white beans and roasted peppers but not the tahini found in typical middle eastern recipes.
The menu at Assaggio!, which means "taste" in Italian, is mostly Italian with a bit of American steakhouse tossed in. The menu offers a few appetizers plus most of the pasta dishes as "a taste," which is a smaller portion at a gentler price.
Shrimp Antoinette ($9/$15) was egg-battered shrimp Francaise in a caper and roasted red pepper sauce on a bed of bright green arugula leaves. We liked the perfectly cooked, classic preparation of shrimp with a twist; a flavorful sauce blushing from red pepper instead of from tomato. The capers added salt to the dish.
Eggplant rollatini ($9) was thin slices of eggplant stuffed with fresh, locally-made ricotta cheese and topped with a bright-tasting marinara sauce and melted mozzarella. It was a great combination of wonderful ingredients, which should have been served hotter.
Homemade pappardelle pasta ($11/ $18) was offered with a choice of spicy Arrabbiata sauce, meaty Bolognese or - our choice - creamy Carbonara dotted with pieces of pork that looked like pancetta. My dining companion claimed the pasta was too chewy for their personal taste.
From the seafood options, we chose the striped bass ($30), a good sized portion of boneless fish pan seared in a brown butter and caper sauce. Served with a side of tasty mashed potatoes and a fresh vegetable medley of green beans, mushrooms and julienned carrots that had the sweet taste of an addition of butter and brown sugar.
For dessert, we sampled a homemade creme caramel, ($7) a smooth and creamy custard with a melted caramel topping, and a slice of ricotta cheesecake, moist and sweet, finished with powdered sugar. Fresh brewed coffee finished our meal.
Our black-clad server was friendly and efficient, answering questions without offering suggestions or listing her favorites from the menu. Her assistant loosened up as our meal progressed, revealing a heavy foreign accent while ably clearing and pouring between courses. A white jacketed chef emerged from the kitchen a few times during the meal, although he didn't make the rounds to talk to customers. We had read somewhere the chef from Tre Figlio remains in charge of the Assaggio kitchen.
A few people who came in during our meal were ushered upstairs to the "Capri Room", we guessed for some type of private party.
Assaggio was the perfect place to have a romantic meal without breaking the bank, or a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine for one. Expect to see Italian favorites including Italian long hots, fried calamari, antipasti for two, and mussels in red or white sauce, along with entrees such as veal or chicken parmigiana and a seafood Pescatore made with shrimp, clams, mussels, and scallops. Personal pizzas, ideal for a quick snack, are also on the menu at Assaggio!