The culinary journey for Bujar Daku continues.
The Albanian-born restaurateur, who now owns five restaurants in Cape May County plus another in Philadelphia, decided to continue his success in Avalon with Polpo, an Italian/Mediterranean concept that doesn’t stray far from the La Fontana concepts that have become a dining staple for tourists and locals since he opened La Fontana del Mare in Strathmere in 1997.
Polpo, which translates to octopus in Italian, is featured prominently on nearly every section of the large menu, from the polpo alla griglia starter ($16.95) — grilled octopus with artichokes and red onions and a lemon-pesto emulsion — to the polpo salad with mixed peppers, olives, capers and lemon juice/olive oil dressing to the al polpo nero risotto ($28.95) with fresh Spanish octopus, peas, garlic, squid ink and Pecorino-Romano cheese.
“I wanted to have some different items and to be a little different than La Fontana,” Daku says. “So we decided on Polpo because octopus is a very common ingredient in Venetian cuisine. It’s something I like to cook with. It’s versatile and can be used in an appetizer dish or a salad or risotto or whatever, and people love it.”
But Polpo is much more than its name implies and shares the white-linen atmosphere, over-the-top service, ability to bring your own bottle and many signature items you will find at Daku’s La Fontana restaurants, always using the finest ingredients and — in many cases — homemade pasta.
Those signature items include: the best homemade potato gnocchi ($24.95) in South Jersey served two ways: in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce or light blush sauce with fresh mozzarella; veal or chicken Fontana ($28.95, $27.95) made with top-quality, imported prosciutto from Parma, Italy, topped with homemade mozzarella and fine porcini mushrooms in a cognac demiglace; gamberi (market price), large Mediterranean shrimp grilled and drizzled with lemon and extra virgin olive oil; clams or mussels ($14.95) in a breathtaking white wine and garlic or marinara sauce; risotto ($28.95) with shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari in a marinara or garlic wine sauce; and plenty of specials to give diners something a little different every night.
“A lot of people think our gnocchi are the best because we make them very light with the best, most expensive flour imported from Italy that we can find and buffalo mozzarella imported from Italy,” Daku says. “A lot of people come in just for the gnocchi. The gorgonzola is the No. 1 seller.”
Other pasta dishes to indulge in include the Bucattini alla Amatriciana ($23.95) with imported bucattini pasta with pancetta, red onion and Pecorino-Romano cheese in a spicy marinara sauce; Ravioli con Salvia ($22.95), cheese ravioli with pancetta, cherry tomatoes in a sage pinot grigio sauce; and Capellini alla Positano ($28.95) with angel hair pasta, jumbo lump crab and capers in a light marinara.
Like La Fontana, Polpo also keep things approachable, such as chicken and veal prepared in a variety of traditional styles such as parmigiana, piccata, Marsala, Francaise, and more, like the Fantazia style with asparagus and mozzarella cheese in lemon white wine.
“I think the menu works here and at the La Fontana locations because people simply enjoy fresh food made from scratch … nothing is frozen,” he says. “When you cook fresh with familiar ingredients and in familiar styles that people know, they just love the taste.”
Polpo also offers fresh fish including black bass Alla Keka ($36.95) with roasted corn and chopped Jersey tomatoes in basil and pinot grigio, Salmone al Dragoncello ($28.95) with tarragon cream sauce and a daily fish selection such as branzino and tuna.
However, Daku is not done yet.
Despite working 14-to-16 hours daily — Daku was cooking in Polpo the night we dined and cooks every day — the chef/restaurateur is opening his third Fratelli’s Wood-Fired Pizzeria — after Strathmere and Sea Isle City — in Avalon right next to Polpo next year. Like the other Fratelli locations, the future version will feature an imported wood-burning oven and the best flour and ingredients, and will also offer paninis, homemade gelato and more.
“After that, I think I will be done for a while,” Daku says. “But, you never know.”