VINELAND - After a pleasant ride and a few missteps on the final approach to DiLisi Ristorante on Delsea Drive, we spotted the black awning that marked the spot for our next meal. We had picked up an appetite along the way.
DiLisi's looked and felt like a small, clean and comfortable family trattoria. Fennel-green walls were minimally decorated. We had to search around for a while before we located the framed village scenes and, of course, a gondola passing under a foot bridge.
Music was supplied by the 24-hour Eros Ramazzotti station, a singer second only to Frank Sinatra in the Italian hierarchy and a sign that someone in the kitchen was indeed from Italy.
Faux-red tiled floors and wooden tables and chairs lent a country air to the room as wild turkeys foraged in the front yard of a neighboring house. Was this place a dream, or were we really in Vineland?
We began our meal with a refreshment. While the label on our bottled water celebrated the company's 110th anniversary, we celebrated the price, $3.49 for a full liter - less than half of what we typically spend for the same sparkling mineral water at tonier restaurants.
DiLisi's version of pasta e fagioli featured soft white beans and some tomato pureed together with a stack of ditilini pasta cooked separately then piled on top. A house salad of crisp lettuce was covered with diced tomatoes, shredded cheese and a basic house vinaigrette. Soup or salad came along free with our entree choices.
A small assortment of breads, flat like focaccia, were delivered to our table. Some plain, some specked with what looked like sundried tomato and some topped with a smooth tomato sauce, all warm and good. A perfect selection of bread to go with the antipasto sampler ($8.29).
An assortment of fresh mozzarella slices atop roasted red peppers, marinated mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, thin-sliced cured salami, tomato bruschetta, sharp provolone and prosciutto were arranged around the plate and garnished with black Calamata olives and green Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos. We mixed and matched different breads with different antipasti to find the perfect combination. We found several.
Fried mozzarella ($6.79) was thin slices of cheese lightly breaded, seasoned and deep-fried in half-moon shapes and served over a bright-tasting marinara sauce. We finished all of what we agreed was a very large portion.
A giant white pasta bowl was filled with tortellini rose ($13.29/$9.29) - cheese tortellini in a rosa sauce, marinara with a touch of cream and plenty of Parmigiano cheese.
Seafood pescatore ($20.29/$13.79) was a good-sized portion even when ordered as a half. The al dente linguine pasta was covered with fresh shrimp, calamari, mussels and clams that had been sauteed with white wine and garlic. We had been given a choice of sauces, white or red made mild or spicy, and had ordered the red but, alas, when it arrived as white we didn't say a word.
We enjoyed it just as it was served, but heard a gentleman at another table complain that his dinner had not been served as ordered either. We wrote it off to youthful exuberance on the part of the service staff and didn't let it affect our enjoyment of the meal.
Entrees can be ordered as dinner size or half portions priced lower, a good thing, when one person is not quite as voracious as the other. We finished the half-portion and carried home the remnants of the full sized tortellini - not exactly hard duty.
We were pleasantly surprised when our server arrived with a dessert tray and said that everything was homemade. We selected a light and fluffy version of ricotta cheesecake ($4.59), and how could we pass on sweet ricotta-filled cannoli ($3.99) in crispy shells?
Servers were young and friendly and dressed in black, and although they tended to congregate together at a table near the waiters' station, they seemed to have a good sense of when to appear as needed. Good food, nice surroundings, pleasant servers and fantastic prices.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
419 S. Delsea Drive
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m., Sunday
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $6.29 to $8.29; entrees, $10.29 to $20.29 (half portions available)
Our bill for two: $58 plus tip
Web site: www.dilisi.com