STONE HARBOR - It wasn't a nor'easter that blew us in here but a sudden summer thundershower. We waited it out in the car for a few minutes when, sure enough, we saw the sun again, this time in the form of Sole, the Italian word for sun, with an accent on the "e" and on wonderful Italian food.
Italian masons use a little trick when they restore an older building. They leave some of the original brick exposed as a detail then cover the rest with a layer of stucco and that gives the building much needed visual interest. Sole is made to look like it has been around a very long time.
People-watching is another very Italian habit and the benches on the pavement near Sole provide a birds-eye-view for those times when the summer crowds overwhelm the restaurant and customers have to wait a few minutes to be seated. Lovely downtown Stone Harbor offers plenty of distractions while hungry patrons count down the minutes to their meals.
Inside, Sole was flush with the sunny colors of Italy - Mediterranean blue, sunflower yellow and sunrise orange. Sunlight poured through the front window, lighting up colorful bottles of local wines available on a shelf near the door. Pale blue tablecloths were offset by gold napkins. Striped seating surfaces added yet more color to the room. Walls were simply decorated with plates and more typical paintings of country-village vistas.
The sun streamed through a green bottle of unrefined olive oil stationed on our table, the perfect flavorful foil to the ciabatta loaf - crusty with an airy, chewy center. My dining companion declared the bowl of lobster bisque ($7.95) as the best ever. Thick and rich and loaded with pieces of lobster meat, it could have served as a meal on its own. Cozze ($8.95) were simply identified on the menu as P.E.I. mussels, tomato sauce and garlic, a description that hardly did the dish justice. Prince Edward Island in Canada produces mussels that are consistently sweet and tender.
Pair them with a flavorful tomato, garlic and basil sauce thick enough to coat the eggplant-black shells and you begin to understand what the Mediterranean diet is all about. Not talking calories here, but the simple style of great ingredients gently touched by a talented kitchen staff who knows when to leave well enough alone. More bread would have come in handy to finish the sauce. Lobster ravioli ($21.95) were oversized and homemade, stuffed with a chunky lobster mousse and sauced with reduced cream, lump crab meat and freshly diced tomato - Italian handling of some popular Jersey shore ingredients.
The grilled chicken Siciliana ($16.95) was a quick saute of moist, boneless chicken breasts, cubed eggplant, Calamata olives, quartered artichokes and fresh tomato. Plenty of olive oil and garlic is understood. Sauteed green zucchini, yellow squash and red peppers were seasoned, nicely cooked and fresh tasting, too.
Tiramisu ($6.95) elicited a quick response from my dining companion - "Who likes mushy cake?" The only homemade dessert on the menu, this was a pan-made version, layered and cut into squares, and soaked with plenty of coffee flavors. It wasn't long before two forks were working the plate until the last morsel had disappeared.
When we opened our leftovers at home, each styrofoam box had been marked by our server, so we knew at a glance which delights each box held.
The menu was supplemented by a few specials of the day, including a whole branzino, the Mediterranean sea bass, finished tableside. Pretty heady stuff for a busy summer restaurant.
It can't be easy for the seasonal restaurant with such a short summer season. Staffing is always a challenge. Sole is not like many other seasonal restaurants that are simply functional, built to serve the masses, but with a sister restaurant located in Newtown Square, Pa., Sole always seems to come out of the blocks, ready to go. Although it became harder to get our server's attention once their station had several tables, the kitchen never missed a beat with food quality that it often takes other seasonals most of the summer to attain.
The host who greeted us was not in the dining room when we left, something we think is important, although he did come to our table after the entrees were served to ask how we enjoyed our meal.
Sole was a sunny, summer experience, a perfect blend of seashore sense and Italian sensibilities.
(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.)
9800 Third Ave.
Hours: Dinners daily from
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard
Disabled access: Some steps
Price range: Appetizers $5.95 to $10.95, entrees $13.95 to $27.95
Our bill for two: $67 plus tip