The last thing the Jersey Shore needed was another Italian restaurant. With takeout pizza joints and sit-down pasta venues practically littering our coastline, another spot claiming to have the best meatballs or the best long hots or the best gravy or the best fill-in-your-own Italian fare around really wasn’t necessary.
But Sea Isle City’s newest Italian restaurant, La Finestra, proves that statement wrong. Turns out, we did need one.
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La Finestra is different. It is Italian, yes. Run by two Albanians. With a head chef whose last name is Gonzalez.
The three co-owners — Eric Rakaj, Lenny Alliu and Chef Antonio Gonzalez — already have Sea Isle’s busy and charming, year-round Italian restaurant, A Modo Mio, on the south end of town.
And if having another Italian restaurant was the last thing South Jersey needed, it was also the last thing these guys needed, too.
“But I couldn’t give up a good opportunity,” says Rakaj, who was offered the three-level building at JFK Boulevard and Pleasure Avenue when the former Bella Luna restaurant closed.
“With the views of the ocean …” he trails off, as if in awe of the sight. “That’s what drove us to open this second restaurant.”
The views — inside and out
The building, of course, already had windows. But they were on the smallish side, and the former restaurant concealed some of the view with curtains. When the three owners first looked at the property that promised “ocean views,” they immediately chose to knock out what was there and put in much larger windows to offer completely unobstructed views of the band shell, promenade, boulevard, beach and the wide expanse of the ocean.
“In order to have a restaurant that advertises ocean views, people have to have a clear view of ocean. So we took down the walls and old windows,” says Rakaj of the remodeling that took place before La Finestra (which literally translates to “the window”) opened just prior to Memorial Weekend. “When guests walk in, they want to see the water ... not walls.”
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Only the top two floors, accessible by stairs or elevator, are utilized for dining (first floor is the lobby). The interior décor, for which Bakaj says “everyone chipped in ideas,” is rightly simple, with beachy touches here and there and varied hues of aqua as a through line between rooms.
Not much else is needed. What lies outside those large, newly installed windows is all the décor one needs. The ocean glistens in the distance, and you have a bird’s eye view of the happy hustle and bustle of a summer’s night at arguably Sea Isle’s most eventful intersection. It is a special treat to have such views when dining at the shore — one that, outside of a casino restaurant, is a rare find.
The modern menus at both A Modo Mio and La Finestra use more or less the same ingredients. But that’s where the similarities end. The former’s menu is smaller, with a focus more on Gonzalez’s homemade pastas and risotti. The latter has pastas for sure, but includes options for chicken, veal and steak dishes, as well as a specialty in seafood options.
“A Modo Mio is the food that I like to eat, made our way — food that we grew up eating at home,” he says of the menu at his original restaurant. “La Finestra is more high-end, more modern, more of what people enjoy.”
Appetizers are varied and interesting, with the Pomodoro ($14.95), a whole tomato stuffed with crab meat and avocado with an heirloom vinaigrette, spied being delivered to several tables during our visit. And if cheese is your thing, don’t miss the fresh and creamy Burrata ($13.95), accompanied with melon and prosciutto delicately sliced into cone-like shapes, topped with balsamic reduction.
Our choice was the Calamari Fritti ($13.95), common among Italian menus, but unlike any we’ve ever had. Served with meaty Portobello mushrooms, flakes of shaved Parmigiano, a tangy sriracha-balsamic reduction and raspberry coulis, it was light and zingy with a smidge of heat and loads of flavor. In fact, a different flavor was discovered with every bite.
Veal entrees were plentiful in the dining room, for good reason. Four different options offered something for anyone. There’s the Al Gorgonzola ($23.95), a veal so tender you can cut it with a fork served with wild mushrooms in a surprisingly light Gorgonzola cream sauce; Al Siciliano ($24.95), a slow-cooked veal stew over risotto; La Finestra ($27) with roasted peppers, porcini mushrooms, crab meat in a sherry cream sauce; and of course, a traditional Parmigiana ($22.95).
Meats include stuffed pork chops ($27.95), Porterhouse lamb chops ($30.95) and a 16-ounce Black Angus ribeye ($31.95).
Gonzalez makes all of the pastas for both restaurants daily, and utilizes local farms and fisheries each day, as well, to create fresh dishes such as the whole Dover sole (MP), grilled wild salmon ($25.95) and the Branzino e Granchio ($29.95), which is a sea bass with crab meat.
“You’re at the shore. You want fresh, not frozen,” Rakaj says.
Personally, I’m a pasta girl. And while the capellini with scallops, crab meat, spinach, basil and cherry tomatoes ($28.95), the rigatoni with shrimp ($24.95) and the ricotta cavatelli ($21.95) all caught my attention, it was the signature Pasta La Finestra ($23.95) that won me over. Homemade pappardelle and mushrooms were doused in a fantastic short rib ragu that makes my mouth water even as I write this.
The dessert ($7.95 each) menu includes some homemade items such as tiramisu, crème brulee and Key lime cake — not pie — that’s round, similar to a cupcake, and served with three different dipping sauces all drizzled on the plate a la a Jackson Pollock painting.
During this busy summer season, Alliu spearheads things at La Finestra, while Rakaj stays at A Modo Mio and Gonzalez “bounces back and forth” between the two. According to Rakaj, they are lucky. Together, they collaborate on menus, brainstorm ideas and deal with any staffing and front- and back-of-house duties seamlessly. And best of all, they all get along.
The buzz since opening the new restaurant has been positive, and Rakaj is thrilled that they made the jump.
And as for having the “best of” something? Rakaj gives all the acclaim to Sea Isle City.
“It’s the best town to open a restaurant.”
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