HAMMONTON - Restaurants don't stay in business for more than fifty years for nothing. Gimmicks and fads quickly wear thin and give way to the latest trends. No wonder so many small restaurants go under so fast.
So, the trick is to use a concept based on many years of food history, prepare it with care, serve it in large portions and sell it at a reasonable price. That pretty much sums up the experience we had at Joe Italiano's Maplewood Inn.
Our server had a glint in her eye when we ordered then asked if we had selected too much food. Of course we had. But there is something about the menu and the feel of the place that makes you think you are sitting in the home of an Italian relative who just stepped back into the kitchen to whip up a family meal. It would be awfully hard to refuse anything they brought to the table.
A loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board sat on top of a basket of garlic bread just to save some room while we portioned out the famous salad of lettuce, cucumbers and sweet peppers served in a big bowl, family-style. Steamed mussels ($8.99) arrived within minutes with our chosen red sauce. The gigantic appetizer portion was plenty for two and we loved the small, sweet mollusks and the fresh-tasting tomato sauce ladled over the top. They could only have been better if they had been cooked in the sauce rather than steamed and sauced separately.
Soups arrived next, with a creamy and flavorful seafood bisque ($5.99). Perfectly textured - nice and smooth and loaded with tiny shrimp, clams and scallops - my dining companion absolutely devoured it. Beans and macaroni ($3.75) was a mild tomato broth with three beans, red and white cannellini and ceci beans paired with little-shell macaroni. We were already getting full, with most of the loaf and all of the garlic bread gone.
We were glad we selected something simple and good as an entree. Spaghetti and anchovies aligio ($16.99) was a large plate of homemade spaghetti floating in plenty of olive oil that was seasoned with lots of garlic and a school of anchovies. It's so good when prepared with care, and this dish was perfectly prepared.
Uncle Nino got a chance to shine when we chose his namesake preparation ($25.99). Apparently Nino's forte was seafood. Served on a base of fresh pasta, the dish included lobster tail, clams, shrimp and half of a Dungeness crab in our choice of white sauce. The menu called it a Maplewood classic, and we called the white-wine butter sauce and fresh seafood spectacular. We wondered why we weren't lucky enough to have an Uncle like Nino.
In lieu of an icy cold glass of limoncello liquor, we settled for the limoncello gelato ($5.50) served ice cold in a parfait glass and also ordered a slice of homemade coconut-custard pie ($5.50). How we managed to finish the desserts was unclear, as we had to box up more than half of our entrees. Our server marked each package so we knew at a glance the anchovies from seafood.
We couldn't remember ever seeing the painted brick building clearly because there is always a ring of cars parked around it. It actually seemed much smaller inside, seating only about 50 people in the dining room with equal space given to the bar area. Our server told us there was another smaller room that averaged about 20 patrons.
This day the front was decorated with orange pumpkins and colorful chrysanthemums in a full-out fall regalia.
Our server was great, the dining room was steady and the music was low. We couldn't have expected such a wonderful experience if we didn't already know how busy the restaurant is from the time they open the doors. Everything about the Maplewood Inn is abbondanza.
We will never forget our server's admonition about the spaghetti with garlic and anchovies: "One of you will be sleeping on the couch tonight."
It would have been worth it.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt 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.)
470 White Horse Pike
Hours: Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m.
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Web site: www.joesmaplewood.com
Price range: Appetizers, $3.99 to $18.99; entrees, $12.99 to $26.99
Our bill for two: $93 plus tip