MILLVILLE - It was below freezing on a mid-week night when we went to Gina's, but the frigid weather didn't keep customers away. This charmingly decorated restaurant is pretty small, housing less than a dozen tables, but it is big in other ways, which is why, no doubt, we had to pass some time until we were seated.
As my guest and I watched the staff maneuver through the crowded dining room with huge bowls, one after another, brimming with fragrant mussels, we knew what one of our appetizers would be even before we looked at the menu.
After our server greeted us and told us the evening's specials, of which we ordered two for dinner, he brought a basket of sliced rustic Italian bread and a saucer of very garlicky olive oil for dipping. I really enjoy bread, especially when it's as fresh and good and irresistible as this loaf was. I can do without the excessive garlic, but a lot of people thrive on it and are drawn to Italian-American cuisine to get their fix of the pungent seasoning. For this reason alone, garlic lovers will find what they're looking for here.
Now - back to our first course - the beautiful looking mussels that enticed us ($7.95). There was no shortage of garlic laced throughout the glistening shells, along with basil and onions in a delicious peppery broth. It is no wonder why we saw bowls of them on almost all of the tables. This appetizer must be one of the house specialties, and deservedly so.
If you stay away from fried cheese, because typically you get a frozen product when you have mozzarella sticks and such, you will change your mind about treating yourself to something decadent after you try this thickly cut, deep-fried provolone ($4.95). Nicely browned, greaseless breading forms a crispy, flavorful crust on the cheese, and it's dabbed with mild marinara sauce. It's a far cry from the tasteless bar munchie we usually come across, and it's worth the splurge.
The house salad included with the meal is simply perfect: crunchy romaine, a few baby spinach leaves, shredded purple cabbage and carrots with a sprinkle of onions all tossed with a marvelous red wine vinaigrette and grated Parmesan cheese. I loved how the dressing added just the right amount of zest without overdoing it.
Risotto of the day ($22.95) came steaming from the kitchen, and the first whiff we got of it was - you guessed it - garlic, but the creamy arborio rice was packed with plenty of tender whole sea scallops, medium-sized shrimp, a smattering of onions and al dente snow peas - undeniably cooked by expert hands.
When we think of scaloppini, whether it be veal, chicken or pork, we think about thinly sliced or pounded pieces of meat that we saute and serve with a sauce often made with wine. This pork scaloppini ($20.95) was prepared more like a giant boneless pork loin chop (not that we minded the twist on tradition) stuffed with Italian sausage, broccoli rabe and roasted red peppers accented with a mild brown sauce and served with roasted red potatoes. For a hearty dish such as this, I found it a bit underwhelming like something was missing. My guest thought there was too much going on, while I thought, at the least, it needed more salt to liven it up.
There's no question the desserts we had were made from scratch. Four lovely anise-scented biscotti ($4) would have been enough for both of us, but we also indulged in a scoop of dense chocolate chip bread pudding ($5.50) covered with the most divine whipped cream I've had in a long time. What could possibly make it so much better than the rest? Perhaps its dreamy consistency that reminded me of ice cream as it begins to melt, and the fact that it wasn't terribly sweet. I might have warmed the pudding up a little to soften it. It was too cold, my only quibble.
There is an air of sophistication here, yet the atmosphere is casual and family-friendly, and the menu is reasonably priced.
Working together, two servers and a busboy handled the busy dining room with ease. We sensed that a lot of folks were regulars by the way they interacted with the staff, especially the woman who beamed and introduced herself to us as the busboy's grandmother. And, yes, he did a wonderful job, along with the others. She should be mighty proud. After all, it is his first stint as a busboy, and a he's a good one at that.
Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Features Editor Steve Cronin at email@example.com. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
110 N. High St.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to
3 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; dinner 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 4 to 9 p.m. Fridays and 3 to 9 p.m. Saturdays
Liquor license: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Price range: Appetizers $3.50 to $8.95, entrees, $11.95 to $22.95
Our bill for two: $66.30 plus tip