The trip to Antoinetta's in Eagleswood Township, Ocean County, trails off Route 9 and three miles down Cedar Run Dock Road to land's end.
That's where the magic starts. The restaurant has an unparalleled view of Barnegat Bay and the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge. Wonderful food, decor and service complete the spell.
Every seat in the two dining rooms - or outside on the deck in season - showcases the stunning natural show. Just watch out for greenheads if you pull up in your boat to eat outside next summer.
We sat upstairs, where huge, wood-framed windows are complemented by gold-striped valances, the comfortable chairs have curved wooden backs and soft cushions, and the architectural details are charming but don't compete with the view. Unlike many Italian-themed restaurants, there is no clutter: no dusty statues, trellises or fake vines.
We remarked how sparkling the wine glasses looked on the white tablecloths in the soft amber light. The waitress said glassware is washed separately in its own dishwasher, never with food-crusted plates or silverware. It shows.
Antoinetta's is a BYOB restaurant and reservations are required. Open Wednesdays to Sundays for lunch and dinner in fall, winter and spring, the menu changes to reflect what's fresh and seasonal.
Specials this fall include a $25 three-course dinner menu on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Diners can choose from appetizers including mushrooms stuffed with Italian sweet sausage; mussels with white wine, garlic and herbs; a Caesar salad or fried Italian bread stuffed with mozzarella in marinara sauce. Entrees included chicken gorgonzola, with vegetables, cheese and penne pasta; or chicken Napolean, with potatoes, roasted peppers, cheese and a Balsamic demi-glaze; cavatelli with sweet Italian sausage, oven-baked with mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce; or eggplant parmesan. Dessert choices on the special were limited to a butter pound cake with vanilla ice cream, a chef's dessert du jour, vanilla or chocolate ice cream; and coffee or tea.
On Fridays, Antoinetta's offers a seafood trio entr�e ($22.95) with a jumbo lump crab cake over mixed greens, 2 coconut shrimp and 2 lobster ravioli in a lobster cream sauce.
Vegetarians and those seeking gluten-free offerings will find menus aimed at accommodating them, with three to four appetizers ($8.25 to $10.25) and entrees ranging from $23.95 to $35.95. However, it's questionable to call Scottish Salmon ($25.95) or Day-Boat Sea Scallops ($32.95), each over mushroom risotto, a vegetarian meal.
The vegetable-stock risotto is made with olive oil, not butter, which would accommodate vegans. But they would no doubt want to leave off the fish or shellfish. Cavatelli with broccoli, garlic, olive oil, herbs and spices (23.95) or the Risotto Cake over seasonal veggies ($25.95) would be more like it.
We started with the Mozzarella Carozza ($8.95), fried Italian bread encasing fresh mozzarella and a bright-red, fresh-tasting marinara. The large portion was suitable for sharing, and left all childhood memories of breaded mozzarella sticks and tomato sauce in the dust.
The Caesar salad ($8.50) was a generous-size bowl of crunchy Romaine, coated-but-not-drenched in a decent homemade dressing. The huge hand-cut croutons were a little tough to chew, though.
Warm, fresh rolls were served with olive oil seasoned with Italian herbs, red pepper flakes, basil and minced garlic.
For a main course, we sampled filet mignon mio, the most expensive meal on the menu at $35.95. The first time it came to the table, we found it a bit too rare for our taste, which was quickly remedied. When it reappeared, the succulent meat was at our ideal level of doneness (pink/red, not blue/red) and enhanced-but-not-overpowered by the black peppercorns and brandy cream sauce. This picky meat eater ate the whole thing without sharing.
The accompanying roasted new potatoes and tiny asparagus spears were well-seasoned and perfectly cooked.
The Chicken Parmigiano ($23.95) was a very large portion of extremely tender chicken in a light batter, with mozzarella and parmigiano cheeses, a fresh tomato sauce and al dente linguine.
Our server was terrific: always anticipating what we might want, but not hovering. She replaced silverware between courses without being asked; she brought an ice bucket for the white wine without being asked; and she was ready with the pepper grinder whenever needed.
We offer one suggestion aimed at perfecting the almost perfect ambience: Switch to less corny, predictable music. "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's" …a wrong note, in such an elegant setting.
Most of the desserts are made by owner/chef Mario's mother-in-law, and we tried two that were nothing short of fabulous. (No, she's not Antoinetta, the name came from a former owner's family.)
The Tiramisu ($7) was twice the size expected, but so delectable that we had to finish all its decadent layers. The plate was nicely dusted with powered sugar and cinnamon and finished with a large letter A, for Antoinetta's, in chocolate sauce.
Pumpkin/butter pound cake ($7) was just the right balance of fall flavors - no heavy clove or all-spice overpowering the cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Served warm, we got two large pieces of very moist cake with a big dollop of vanilla ice cream. If caffeine at night works for you, try the exceptional Lavazza coffee ($2.50) from Italy.
Antoinetta's will be closed one weekend in mid-November for a family wedding, and will be open for Thanksgiving (seatings from noon to 4 p.m.) with a full dinner menu as well as a holiday special of turkey breast with yams, garlic mashed potatoes, cranberries, stuffing and gravy for $23.95.
Although it's a hike to get to the end of Cedar Run Dock Road, you'll feel transported yet tranquil as you watch the lights of Long Beach Island and Atlantic City across the water.
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.
523 Cedar Run Dock Road, Eagleswood Township
Hours: By reservation only, offseason. Dinner 5 to 8 p.m. Wednes-days, Thursdays and Sundays; 5 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays
Liquor license: BYOB
Credit cards: Major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $8.50-$14.50; entrees $23.95-$35.95.
Our bill for two: $100.42, plus tip