VINELAND - It's always a treat to find an unexpectedly good, but little-known place to eat tucked away where you don't expect one to be. Michael's Mediterranean Cuisine is a little tricky to find at first because it's not on a main thoroughfare; however, once you discover it, you won't have any problems going back again and again.
The ambience is far from trendy. A dining room, big enough to hold a dozen or so green-clothed tables, has minimal d�cor. But it's not what adorns the walls that is attractive here. It's the food that comes to the table, and the people who prepare and serve it.
The menu is comprised primarily of Italian cuisine with a smattering of French, Greek and Portuguese specialties. Although you'll find plenty of chicken, veal, beef and pasta items, its focus seems to be on seafood.
As I walked by its small kitchen, I noticed the chef singlehandedly cooking everything to order with one dishwasher by his side. After tasting each course, it was obvious that all of it was executed with a lot of care.
After greeting us and reciting the specials, our server delivered a basket of lovely, warm panella bread and a saucer of olive oil and balsamic vinegar sprinkled with salt and pepper.
High-quality bread is more often than not a precursor to a noteworthy meal, and my hope that this theory would hold true came to light, especially with our first appetizer: olive tapenade bruschetta ($4.95), a hearty mixture of assorted minced olives with olive oil, garlic and flecks of red pepper served on four pieces of grilled Italian bread. It was handmade, perfectly salted, juicy and absolutely scrumptious.
An antipasto platter ($7.95), priced for one but big enough for two, came with plump slices of sweet grilled eggplant, garlic-infused roasted red and orange peppers, marinated artichokes, salami, capicola and shavings of parmigiana reggiano. Unfortunately, the thin slivers of cheese became lost in the flavors of the vegetables, so perhaps larger chunks would add the oomph I felt was lacking from this otherwise-nice antipasto. In this case, I wouldn't mind paying extra for more.
The house salad with white balsamic vinaigrette was fresh and tasty, but it was the white-bean-and-sausage soup that sent my dining partner into a tizzy. A thick broth packed with perfectly cooked navy beans, tomatoes, aromatic vegetables and bits of Italian sausage was a labor of love. We both agreed it was on par with the best, including our own family recipes.
I couldn't remember the last time I had ordered pasta as an entr�e, so I decided to forgo a major protein for a bowl of traditional linguini carbonara ($12.95), which was clearly the right choice. Al dente pasta was simply tossed with peas, chopped pancetta (cured Italian bacon) and a light-as-air cream sauce with hints of garlic. I agreed to share it only because I wanted to have some of my guest's meal as well.
Portuguese Monkfish Casserole ($13.95) came bubbling to the table with roughly cut hunks of tender fish, roasted peppers, green and ripe black olives, and capers in a pungent pomodoro sauce dense with spices. I had no complaints, but I found this dish less memorable than the pasta.
A side of string beans amandine also caught us by surprise. A fistful of bright green beans had a proper amount of snap and tasted wonderful with the crunchy nuts and garlicky butter (there was no shortage of garlic in nearly everything we ate).
Desserts are outsourced except for the warm, homemade bread pudding ($4.95) made with dried-fruit filled pannetone, which gave it a distinguished flavor, especially paired with caramel-sauce topping.
Though it didn't wow us, a lemon bundt cake ($3.95) was better than we thought it would be. Finely grated lemon peel garnished a swirl of whipped cream that accompanied the cake. I appreciated that someone took the time to jazz it up!
Our server was as delightful as they come. She delivered informal-but-excellent service. Working alone in a half-filled dining room, she remained at ease as she took care of all of us as though each person was the most important customer there.
Michael's is a BYO, so don't forget to take your own wine. Judging by the number of bottles on the tables, everyone else does. We didn't, but there's always next time.
(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.)
2 LaSalle Plaza
Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Liquor license: No; BYO
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Appetizers, $2.95 to $7.95; entrees, $10.95 to $23.95
Our bill for two: $49 plus tip