VINELAND - Giorgio's is a perfect example of why we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, because at first glance you might think there's nothing special about this place at 363 E. Wheat Road. But, after you are seated in the practically nondescript, pumpkin-colored dining room, and the courses begin to arrive, you will no doubt agree some of the best Italian fare shows up in restaurants that place more importance on the quality of the food than swanky decor.
You won't find candlelit tables cloaked in formal linens, just a simply appointed room packed with enough seating for about 80 people, and a bar to hang out at if all you want to do is sip a cocktail and chew the fat with the bartender while watching a game on the TV that dangles overhead. Ambiance aside, it's the food that warrants praise here.
Our meal began with small, tasty, hot rolls made from pizza dough that are obviously baked on the spot and especially addictive dunked in flavorful olive oil packed with fresh herbs and red pepper flakes. When we got down to one roll, our waiter whisked away the basket and brought it backed filled with more rolls along with another saucer of the delightful oil. I'm certain no one can resist eating these little gems.
It was no surprise the menu touts many of the typical items we've seen at most of the Italian restaurants we've been going to these days. So, when our appetizers came, my dining partner and I noticed, after the first few bites, even though the menu is similar to others around town, whoever does the cooking, stands out among the rest.
Grigliata di verdure ($7.95), a warm antipasti made with grilled eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, purple onions and sauteed broccoli rabe came drizzled with a light balsamic vinaigrette instead of the carrot sauce that was supposed to be on it according to the menu. Granted, carrot sauce was the most intriguing part for me, the main reason I wanted this dish, but I enjoyed the vegetables nonetheless. In the end, we didn't miss the carrot sauce at all.
Seafood galettes ($13.95) were lovely. Three puffy seafood cakes, sauteed until golden on both sides, came floating in an herb and garlic butter sauce. We liked their mousse-y texture and subtle seafood flavor - a nicely done, French-inspired diversion from traditional crab cakes.
The soup of the day was by far the best cream of mushroom I've had. It was full-bodied yet not too thick, loaded with pureed and whole mushrooms and seasoned with a hint of roasted garlic. I savored every spoonful until the cup was empty - tempted to order another.
An average house salad, made with leaf lettuce, a few wedges of under-ripe tomatoes, some shaved carrot and balsamic vinaigrette came alive when my guest sprinkled grated Parmigiano on top.
After an encouraging start, it was the entrees that upped the ante.
It's been a long time since I've treated myself to a big bowl of pasta, and the linguine alla puttanesca ($13.95) fulfilled my serious craving for it. A hair past al dente, the linguini arrived steaming, tossed with a chunky marinara sauce studded with capers, olives, anchovies and garlic, a combination that packs a savory punch. I made the right decision when choosing this entree, and I don't regret the carbohydrate overload when the carbs were so deliciously bathed in home-style sauce.
Another winner, the pan-fried chicken Milanese ($14.95) was remarkably good with an outer layer of deep-brown, crisped breading that made way to a fork-tender, pounded chicken breast, all topped with a toss of lettuce, tomatoes, a little too much coarsely chopped raw garlic and balsamic vinaigrette. In New Jersey, it's difficult to get red ripe tomatoes in the winter, which knocks anything made with fresh tomatoes down a notch. With no choice but to use what's readily available, the chef has made under-ripe as good as it can get in December.
Between a crunchy, sweet cream cannoli ($4.95) and a piece of pre-made chocolate mousse cake, the cannoli was the better of the two desserts.
We got the impression our waiter was somewhat uneducated about the menu, as though he had recently been hired and was still learning what was on it, but he was very friendly and did a fine job of taking care of us. Like the decor, there is nothing fancy about the service either.
All great books don't necessarily have expensive, glossy covers. It's what's underneath that really counts.
Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Features Editor Steve Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
363 E. Wheat Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Liquor license: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Dining room, yes; restrooms, no
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Appetizers, $4.95 to $16.95; Entrees, $10.50 to $20.95
Our bill for two: $61.25 plus tip