EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - The name Jo Jo's has been recognizable as a restaurant that offers good, reliable Italian-American cuisine, and there are several of them throughout our community.
Individually owned and operated, the proprietors are related to each other, but not all of the restaurants are; however, the latest location in Risley Commons here is sister to the one on Main Street in Pleasantville, which has been going strong for many years.
The menu is the same in both places, but the d�cor and ambience in Egg Harbor Township is more modern and sleek, with an upscale, urban feel to it. It's not a very big space, and the dining area is divided into two small sections, but it's comfortable nonetheless.
Especially appealing is an open area that houses a pizza stove and a hearth-brick oven in full view for all to see.
On the menu, you'll find everything imaginable or desirable, whether it's a stromboli, an entr�e-sized salad, a 14-ounce veal chop or pasta with garlic and oil. There are plenty of chicken, beef, fish, seafood and pasta selections, plus a host of traditional and designer pizzas.
And, there is a list of the evening's specials, which my dining guest and I found irresistible on the night that we dined.
Our meal started with a basket of sliced Italian bread served with butter, and some addictive wedges of freshly baked, warm pizza bread crusted with parmesan and faintly seasoned with garlic. With this, our busser brought a saucer of vegetables - zucchini, carrots, green peppers and olives - doused with homemade, mildly spiced dressing. It was something to nibble on until our appetizers arrived.
Zuppa di mussels ($9.50) came piled high with tender mussels immersed in brothy marinara sauce that was perfectly flavored with basil and studded with chunks of tomato - just right for bread dipping. Oftentimes, I find that mussels are overloaded with garlic. Not the case here.
Agnello dijonaise ($13.50) - four baby lamb chops cooked medium rare and perched atop delightful, creamy risotto then blanketed with velvety honey-dijon sauce - was absolutely scrumptious. All of the components worked well together, although the lamb was somewhat camouflaged by a little too much sauce. That was a minor hiccup, and certainly a personal call on my part.
Dinners come with a cup of soup or a house salad. As usual, we had one of each and both were good, especially the homemade pasta y fagiole brimming with vegetables, beans and macaroni.
The salad, a typical blend of lettuce, tomato, carrots, cucumber and onions, was cool and crisp but lacked a wow factor. I chose blue-cheese dressing because it is made in-house. It tasted fine, but missing were the chunks I've grown accustomed to finding in homemade dressing.
My entr�e, melanzana nona ($19.50), was a winner. Two huge portions of savory eggplant rollantine were stuffed with ricotta cheese and topped with broccoli rabe, marinara and melted, handmade mozzarella cheese accompanied by wonderful gnocchi that was tossed with basil-tomato sauce. I can't imagine that anyone would be able to finish this entire dish without feeling satiated. I couldn't, so I took half home, and it was equally enjoyable the next day.
Pesce al fresco ($24) was as plentiful and delicious as the eggplant. A duo of flawlessly cooked grouper fillets - prepared francaise style - was crowned with lots of jumbo lump crabmeat, grilled asparagus spears, tomatoes, capers, white-wine lemon butter and was served with terrific al dente angel-hair pasta. The only thing missing was stronger lemon flavor in the sauce. It needed extra pizzazz.
After eating such a big meal, we decided to share one dessert instead of two, and it was outstanding. With a nicely browned crest and a feathery, not overly sweet center, the ricotta cheesecake ($4.95), made from a family recipe, was a model for all Italian cheesecakes. Bravissimo!
Our waitress and busser helped to make our experience one of the best we've had at a neighborhood eatery. In a casual atmosphere, they provided excellent service from start to finish, and the pacing between the dining room and the kitchen was spot on.
Among all of the Jo Jo's, this one is a champion.
(Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Food Editor James Clark at email@example.com. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
Black Horse Pike
Egg Harbor Township
Hours: Open daily from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Appetizers, $2 to $13.50; entrees, $8.95 to $30.45
Our bill for two: $71.50 plus tip