SEA ISLE CITY — There is something special about dining alfresco in the summer time. And that possibility is what catches your eye first, when you pass by La Fontana Coast.
Gleaming glassware atop white tablecloths, a candle for dusk, and comfortable woven chairs line the sidewalk in the seaside village of Sea Isle. A line of potted plants marked out the terrace seating. Handsome servers stood at attention, ready to take our order. It reminded us of an Italian coastal village setting missing only the roar of a herd of Vespas coming down the street.
A crisp-crusted loaf of bread and a bottle of olive oil is still the best way to begin a meal. A really good involtini de melanzane ($9.95) helps, too. Paper thin slices of sauteed eggplant were stuffed and rolled with a filling of ricotta cheese, spinach, and ground walnuts. Topped with a fresh marinara sauce and a slice of mozzarella cheese then baked in the oven, two pinwheels were just the right size for a starter.
An arugula salad ($8.95) was straightforward enough, with a pile of baby arugula leaves, some grape tomatoes, and several curls of pecorino Romano cheese over the top. The dressing tasted of lemon and olive oil, but should have been tossed with the greens rather than simply poured over the top. A great salad maker knows to lightly coat everything, so the dinner doesn’t run into any dry spots on the salad.
Entrees began with a sturdy penne alla vodka ($18.95) served in a heavy white trattoria bowl with a garnish of pancetta and green peas. The perfectly al dente pasta was coated with just enough vodka cream sauce to remind the dinner the dish is about the pasta, not about puddles of sauce.
Anyone who watches television cooking shows knows how easily a risotto can enrage the chef. Good risotto requires good technique. That creamy consistency comes from constant stirring that breaks down the starch in the rice before the addition of butter, heavy cream, or grated cheese. When our risotto alla Pescatore ($24.95) arrived, the rice had none of that creaminess about it that we have come to expect in a risotto. With a couple shrimp, some calamari slices, a load of mussels, and a few tiny clams with a little sand, the seafood was cooked correctly. But the dish was more like a combination of two mixtures rather than a coherent whole.
Seafood risotto is typically served without the strong taste of a hard grating cheese to cover up the delicate seafood. We refused an offer of grated cheese, opting instead for a few turns of the pepper mill to finish the plate.
Some desserts at La Fontana Coast were homemade, some came from a big Italian dessert company. We sampled soggy cannoli crust stuffed with nicely sweetened ricotta cheese. The drizzle of chocolate sauce seemed an unnecessary adjunct to the dish. We liked the lemon cheesecake, refreshingly light and not cloyingly sweet. It was more like a layered sponge cake with lemon cheesecake mousse layers. Cappuccino and espresso were the perfect finish to our meal.
As often happens in seasonal villages, restaurants replace restaurants. Although La Fontana Coast has the same address as the previous restaurant, nothing about the decor would make you confuse the two. The dining room inside seemed more formal than the terrace. Ceilings were painted a light sky-blue, walls a brush-stroke gold. The room required drapes rather than curtains. Dark woods in abundance were offset by colorful oil paintings of typical coastal scenes from the Adriatic Sea side of Italy.
Servers were dressed in black pants and aprons with both men and women wearing crisply ironed blue dress shirts and men’s ties. Service was less formal than it looked and our server did a good job of looking after us. A young bus boy dressed in black and white was comfortable dealing with people and friendly. We don’t remember being referred to as “guys” one time during our review meal.
Italian voices could be heard from the sound system, Andrea Bocelli’s among them. We liked that the customers all brought their own wine and refrained from using their cell phones, something that almost never happens in Italy.