You don't go for the view, you go for the food.
If this describes your top priority in picking a restaurant, then Piro's Italian Village Restaurant in North Wildwood should be on your list.
Located at 19th and New York avenues, Piro's is not on the beach or bay. But the fresh ingredients, excellent service and extensive wine and beer list outweighed the lack of killer ambiance for many families and couples in the dining room recently.
Pleasant surprise No.1: Our summer weekend reservation actually meant something. We were seated immediately at a nice table in the crowded dining room, despite being a few minutes late.
The dark-hued dining room is much quieter than you might expect due to carpeting, upholstered chairs and a drop ceiling with sound-absorbing properties. (Those ceilings may be ugly but they work. You can hear your dining partner and the waiter on the first try.)
We ordered the "award-winning" crab and spinach chowder ($6.50), and we could see why it's available for take-out. The generous-size bowl was full of crab and fresh spinach in a creamy, thick soup that tasted lightly of cheese. (More about those awards later.)
My dining partner enjoyed the salami and tomatoes appetizer ($6), which came with fresh basil, olive oil and a choice of red-wine or balsamic vinegar. We wanted to add some cracked black pepper, but our waiter was not visible. So we muddled through using the pepper shaker on the table.
Pleasant surprise No.2: Entrees include the house salad, which was a well-dressed Caesar-type salad with crisp romaine and freshly grated cheese, but no croutons. Instead, the salad included onions, which we found a bit extraneous, but the waiter showed up with the black pepper grinder just in time.
The accompanying Italian bread basket is served with olive oil seasoned with herbs and a dash of red pepper. The bread is sesame-crusted and nicely textured, although not served warm. It was pretty easy to resist after one piece, given the salad and more interesting-sounding entrees we knew were coming.
Pleasant surprise #3: Many aspects of the customer's total experience were clearly thought through.
The hostesses kept the sun out of diners' eyes by strategically lowering shades in the dining room, and then remembered to raise them after the sinking sun's glare was gone. Our waiter changed the silverware between courses, for the diner who put it on the salad plate hoping it would be replaced. Too often, waiters dump used silverware back on the table, or take it and then forget to replace it. Not at Piro's.
One of our entrees was a high point; the other was disappointing, given the quality of the rest of the meal.
Shrimp fra diavolo ($24) contained five jumbo-sized shrimp beautifully saut�ed. The chef perfectly balanced the devil's heat in the sauce so the diner could detect the more subtle tomato and herb flavors, too. It didn't just blow your head off…but it came as close as we wanted it to.
Veal marsala ($24) was a good quantity of veal and fresh mushrooms in the classic sweet wine sauce. The veal was pounded thin but was overcooked, making it tough. The pastas accompanying the entrees - even the Angel Hair - were cooked al dente, as promised by the menu. Whole wheat pasta also is available.
There are numerous choices of seafood, veal, chicken, steak and pasta dishes. The menu also includes a house specialty offered only once per week: "Sunday Gravy." The traditional Italian Sunday meal promises "old stove recipes" with imported Barilla rigatoni, and homemade meatballs, sausage and braciole for $24.
Piro's desserts (excluding ice cream) are homemade, with seasonal additions. We tried the blueberry streusel pie (price). The blueberries were large and bursting with fresh flavor - so unlike the gluey fruit filling in many commercial pies. The streusel topping was piled high and full of walnuts, butter and brown sugar. It all sat on an flaky pie crust that screamed "homemade."
The ricotta cheesecake (price) had a graham cracker crust and the filling was lightly textured, creamy and delicious, leaving no doubt as to its being homemade.
Even though you won't feel like eating again anytime soon after dinner, you may want to take home some of the previously mentioned crab and spinach chowder. Its "award-winning" designation stems from the days when it won several chowder contests that used to be held in the Wildwoods. The contest may be over, but the soup - like Piro's - lives up to its old-school reputation.
Morgan Tyler is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Tyler c/o Taste Editor Felicia Compian at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.