SOMERS POINT - We always considered Caroline's by the Bay to be one of those all-purpose places to have a drink and a quick snack in a pinch. Nothing about the menu would have taken us out of our way to stop and dine, and nothing about the decor would have made it a destination spot.
Its selling point was location, location, location. The people who own La Fontana in Margate have taken over the kitchen, dressed up the decor in the dining room, and elevated the quality of dining, placing the bar/restaurant portions of the business on equal footing.
Good enough that you might just go out of your way to stop by for a meal. Signage outside, the menu, and the printed check all offered a slightly different version of the name of the place. Fausto's La Fontana Bistro at Caroline's by the Bay says it all. Entering through the front door, we tried to decide which was busier, the seating at the bar or the decor. There was plenty going on to grab our attention on both levels.
Menu choices for the restaurant seemed mostly Italian-inspired dishes while the bar menu traveled the world, offering south of the border selections like nachos and quesadillas, along with plenty American favorites like Angus burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, wraps, and hoagies. Brick-oven pizza was also highlighted on the menu.
The appetizer list seemed a little more "upscale" than the separate list called "starters," composed of the more typical bar-food choices like fried mushrooms, wings and mozzarella sticks. A photocopy of the menu served as our placemat over a white tablecloth.
The soup of the day was lentil ($3.50 for a cup), a good, basic, hearty and thick soup that was just right for a chilly, somewhat rainy, evening. A dark broth featured brown lentils cooked until just barely holding their shape, with pieces of carrot and celery adding a touch of color. Clams casino ($10.95) were disappointing because we could barely chew the rubbery clams served whole on the shell under a flavorful vegetable, cheese and breadcrumb topping. It might be better to chop the clams first and add them to the mix.
We wanted a classic with good red sauce and found it in Fontana's simply titled chicken parm ($14.95). A gigantic piece of boneless chicken breast was breaded and deep-fried in the old style, then topped with a great tomato sauce and plenty of melted mozzarella cheese. Served with a side of linguine, it was just what we had wanted. Next, we selected the crab-cake platter ($20.95), two scoops of seasoned crab meat broiled to perfection. Judging by the crinkle-cut carrot rounds tossed with broccoli and cauliflower florets, we would guess it was a packaged frozen-vegetable medley - one that needed a touch of seasoning from the kitchen. Oven roasted potatoes were served alongside.
Vaulted brick walls featured painted murals not of some quaint Italian village or harbor scene but of the Ocean City Boardwalk and environs. Colored cut glass over the windows and a stained-glass panel, lighted against one wall, gave the room a cheery touch. Tiffany lamps overhead provided some lighting, but the room was, to our minds, a bit too dark. Wood floors, mismatched wooden chairs and a fireplace that we wished had been switched on this evening finished the architectural display.
Tony Bennett crooned just a little too loud for the room and the crowd, composed of mostly older diners unlike the bar area which seemed to attract a younger clientele.
The wait staff busied themselves around the room in black shirts and khaki cargo shorts. Our server was friendly enough, but begin the service poorly by seating us at a four-top and not bothering to remove the two other place settings on our table. The added room would have been a plus. Also, we noticed the other tables around us receiving bread with their meals, though ours never materialized.
We mostly liked the food we sampled, but didn't think it came up to the same level as the meal we enjoyed at La Fontana in Margate.
Don't forget the deck outside. Dreary weather forced us to chose the dining room, but a meal al fresco is a great way to while away a balmy summer evening.
(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.)
La Fontana Bistro at Caroline's by the Bay
450 Bay Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sundays to Thursdays; 11 a.m. to midnight, Fridays and Saturdays
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $9.95 to $11.95; entrees, $12.95 to $22.95
Our bill for two: $57 plus tip