AVALON - We didn't notice any of the expected trappings of a typical Italian restaurant when we visited Fuze Italian Ristorante in Avalon. No green, white, and red flags flying, no straw covered bottles of Chianti, and no nostalgic maps of Sicily could be seen hanging on the walls.
Outside we found a lovely landscaped terrazza, composed of brick and stone. But some early evening thunder showers ruled out the possibility of dining al fresco and the tables remained unset. Instead, our hostess led us through wooden French doors under a stone-lined archway and into the back dining room.
Round, crisp slices of bread covered by a white napkin arrived in a basket with a head of roasted garlic that had been seasoned with fresh thyme and olive oil. For the uninitiated, roasting the head of garlic yields a mild but intense puree of garlic essence. Seasoned olive oil in a tiny square included some pepper flakes and a few capers.
We sipped some limonata through a straw in a tiny glass bottle.
The soup del giorno, or soup of the day, ($8) was a creamy clam chowder served in a white porcelain crock. Any vegetables in the mix were diced so small, only the red pepper stood out. The bits of pork in the soup did not taste of smoke, so we figured it might be the unsmoked Italian bacon called pancetta.
The menu at Fuze has no descriptions but most of the offerings would be recognizable to anyone with a passing knowledge of Italian cuisine. The mussels in red sauce ($12) were not what we expected. They were actually better. Served in a gorgeous, sculpted, white bowl, we half expected a traditional, all-purpose marinara sauce to be the base. This version was a tomato broth with slices of garlic and a bowl filled with small black mussels, that were tender, tasty, and served with bread crostini.
We decided to try the linguine with garlic and oil ($12). As the idea of great Italian cooking is a few great ingredients, simply prepared, we figured this dish would show us what the kitchen could do. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the oil was good. But the slices of garlic needed to cook longer in order to infuse the sauce with flavor, and our server never offered grated cheese or pepperoncini to liven up the dish. So for us, this simple entree fell flat.
We chose the veal piccata ($25) from a list of six veal possibilities, including Marsala, Saltimbocca, and Milanese. The scallopine were hand-sliced from a larger cut of meat and so tender they did not need to be pounded out like a cheaper cut of meat. The sauce was lemon, butter and capers; the perfect foil.
Entrees at Fuze are offered a la carte, so we could have added house-made sausage or meatballs for an additional charge. Broccoli rabe with garlic and olive oil or spinach made the same way were the only vegetable choices listed under "sides." Our server suggested we share the asparagus with prosciutto and aged provolone ($14) from the appetizer section. That worked well.
You shouldn't miss dessert at Fuze. A chocolate souffle torte ($10) was the kind of flourless chocolate cake that gets a sugar crust on top while it bakes. The inside has a fudge-like consistency sure to please any sweet tooth. Homemade whipped cream, a squirt of caramel sauce, some powdered sugar, and a strawberry finished the plate. Gelato & biscotti ($10) consisted of vanilla ice cream with a homemade chocolate sauce and a couple thin slices of almond and anise biscotti.
At Fuze, we believe the focus is where it should be: on the food itself. The food was unquestionably top notch, the ingredients of excellent quality. However, there is something special, even romantic, about dining on a crisp tablecloth with shining glassware and elegant plates, a cloth napkin in your lap.
One wall was all live candles. Wall decorations were simple black metal or wooden shutters that led us to believe we were dining in a courtyard in some tiny Italian village. Music played in the background, but as more diners were seated, the room got louder and louder.
Why we forgot to bring wine is a question that will haunt us forever.
Servers at tables all around us, offered more specials with better descriptions and gave prices for each special. Our server, dressed in white shirt, black apron, pants, and vest, struggled a bit while reciting the list from memory. The water we requested was never refilled, the bread basket was removed rather than refilled and we had to tell the bus person to remove the dirty silverware and bread plates from the table before serving our desserts. To his credit, he returned with fresh silverware for both of our desserts.
Daily specials rotate on a weekly basis. Monday is veal chop; Tuesday, bronzino; Wednesday, pork chop; Thursday, lasagna; Friday, osso bucco; and Saturday, prime rib. Sunday is gravy day, red gravy day. Braciole, meatballs, sausage and rigatoni, just like a family might share at home.